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Order to close ministry center annulled as judge rules against former mayor.

3/28/08 BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Compass Direct News) – A year-long ordeal for an evangelical Protestant church in Quilmes ended this month when a judge annulled a municipal closure order against the congregation’s new – and until now, unused – ministry center.

Former Quilmes Mayor Sergio Villordo had issued the closure order in March 2007, prohibiting the 1,200-member Church of the Encounter from using the three-story facility “for an indefinite period.”

On March 3, Judge Guillermo Pons of the Administrative Justice Court nullified the closure order, declaring it void “by virtue of its failure to abide by municipal building codes.”

Furthermore, the ruling declared Villordo’s action a “clear violation of basic constitutional principles.”

Pons’ decision clears Church of the Encounter of an impending 220,000 peso (US$71,000) fine for alleged code violations and allows the congregation to finally put its new building, which was under construction for seven years prior to the closure, to its intended use as an educational facility and community service center for this city of 500,000.

Church of the Encounter Senior Pastor Raul David Caballero said the closure was part of a harassment campaign aimed at him for publicly exposing corruption in the Villordo administration.

According to the veteran Plymouth Brethren minister and editor-in-chief of the Perspectiva Sur newspaper in Quilmes, the mayor regarded him and his influential congregation as political adversaries. (See “Mayor in Argentina Closes Ministry Center,” Compass Direct News, October 23, 2007.)

Caballero told Compass that the harassment included threatening letters, public posters denigrating his character, stoning and spray-painting his office building, and a half-million peso [US$158,600] lawsuit for inflicting “spiritual and moral damage and pain” on Villordo.

The harassment abated when voters turned Villordo out of office in elections on October 28, 2007. His successor, Francisco Gutiérrez, took over city hall in early December, and Caballero noted that the church’s appeal against the closure order – stalled for nearly nine months – finally reached the proper judicial authorities.

At the same time, a 500-page evaluation of the ministry center construction undertaken by the National Technological University in La Plata strengthened the church’s appeal. Inspectors found the building structurally sound and in accordance with all professional building standards.

Pons’ ruling appears to confirm abuse of power in the Church of the Encounter affair, declaring that Villordo’s administration “put forward its arguments with clear errors of cause, object and finality, to the point of even exceeding the maximum amount of the fine allowed by law.”

The judge further stated that Villordo’s action “has surely imputed certain damages (personal, material and moral)” and found cause for Church of the Encounter to sue the former mayor for damages.

That will likely not happen. “For our part, the pastors of the church have resolved that, except for some unforeseen change, there will be no countersuit whatsoever for damages,” Caballero said.

Instead, Church of the Encounter celebrated its judicial triumph with two special services on March 9, serving cake and empanadas to jubilant worshippers. Church workers also replaced a large placard on the front of the ministry center that had displayed the number of days the building remained closed – 345 at final count.

The new banner says, “With gratitude to God, we salute our neighbors who stood by us through the dark days.”

Caballero told Compass that, despite the stress and financial strain the closure order exacted, positive results are emerging from the conflict. The church’s elementary school plans to expand to the high school level now that space in the ministry center is available.

“As far as the school is concerned, we have registered and unprecedented increase in enrollment for the 2008 term – 120 new families have enrolled their children,” Caballero said. “What has happened has had a great impact on the congregation and on the city, which now knows more about Church of the Encounter than ever before.”