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Religion in Peru

When the Spanish arrived in the region in the early 1530's and set about conquering the Inca Empire, they brought their Catholic religion with them. Churches and cathedrals sprang up in every new settlement. During the colonial period, the mendicant orders—the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians—were prominent in society. The conquistadores were said to favor the mendicant orders, as the friars are not allowed to own personal property (and there would therefore be more loot for everyone else). Today, many important cities dating from the colonial period have cathedrals, monasteries and squares dedicated to San Francisco and San Agustín, reflecting this colonial legacy.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the native Andeans had a complex pantheon of deities that they worshiped. The greatest of the Inca deities was Vira Cocha, and some early Spanish missionaries saw in Vira Cocha en embodiment of their own Christian God (while other missionaries saw him as an incarnation of Satan). For a fascinating look at pre-Columbian Andean religion, check out The Huarochiri Manuscript, one of very few documents that deal with pre-Hispanic religious beliefs that survived the colonial era.

In 1586, Isabel Flores de Oliva was born in Lima. She would later adopt the name Rosa. An extremely devout young woman, she refused to marry and eventually entered a Dominican convent. She was known for her acts of charity as well as extreme self-mortification, including constantly wearing a spiked crown, long fasts and sleeping on a bed full of stones, thorns and broken glass and pottery. Perhaps not surprisingly, she died at the young age of 31, and her funeral was attended by all of the city leaders of Lima. Many miracles have been attributed to her, and she was canonized in 1671 as Saint Rose of Lima. She is the patroness of the Americas as well as Lima, which remembers her with a holiday on August 30. St. Martin of Porras (1579-1639) was also born in Lima, and St. Turibius of Mongrovejo (1538-1606), although born in Spain, was Archbishop of Lima from 1579 until his death.

Over the centuries, Spanish priests managed to stamp out most of the traces of native religion, but some structures and beliefs remained. Cuzco's temples were built over but not totally destroyed, and some of the foundations can still be seen. In a religious melding process known as "syncretism," some churches combine elements of native religion with Christianity.

Today, Peru is still predominantly Roman Catholic (about 75%) but there are other religions as well. Mission-oriented groups such as the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah's Witnesses are growing, and there are communities of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and more. The reclusive Los Israelitas del Nuevo Pacto Universal (Israelites of the New Universal Pact) often put forth candidates for major elections from their compound in the hills near HuarochirĂ­, but little is known about them and their mysterious founder, Ezequiel Ataucusi ("the illuminated one"), although one of their candidates, Javier Noriega, was elected to congress.

Peru is often a destination for new age spiritual pilgrims. Shamans (both real and fake) in the Amazon offer experiences with Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic vine that is often credited with giving visions. Cusco is also considered a center for new age "energy."

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Inca Mythology,

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
13 Jun 2012

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