Hard-hit Venezuelan churches forced to accept plastic for donations

Alexander MARTINEZ
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Card payments have become a common form of Catholic Church donations in Venezuela

Venezuela's collapsing economy has forced churches and priests to get creative in order to keep their coffers full as four years of recession and a projected one million percent inflation rate hit everyone hard.

Citizens are limited in the amount of cash -- itself almost worthless -- they can withdraw from banks each day and, given the minimum monthly salary worth around $1.50, it doesn't go very far.

"The little cash I have is for the bus ticket," said Gladys Angel, a 58-year old accountant who also keeps her cash for shopping, where things can cost three times more when paying by card.

Priests have had to adapt and start accepting donations by card payments rather than the traditional passing around of a wicker basket for churchgoers to drop in some coins, or even notes.

Before giving his blessings, Father Alirio Suarez reminds the faithful that they can make donations using a "point of sale," as locals call the payment terminal, which has become as essential in church as the crucifix, chalice and ciborium.

"The payment terminal has not saved us, but it's helped alleviate the situation. People are generous with the payment terminal, you can see the difference," Suarez, from the El Paraiso parish in Caracas, told AFP.

On Sundays, when there are seven masses and many more faithful in attendance, Suarez's San Alfonso church can collect four million bolivars in cash -- less than one US dollar on the black market.

"That won't buy you a kilogram of meat," said Suarez, 53.

Card payments however can triple the amount of cash coming in, although the priest has to borrow the payment terminal from a charity.

"If it wasn't for the payment terminal, things would be going very badly," he said, acknowledging that many people simply cannot afford to donate anything.

The transaction itself takes place in the sacristy, affording parishioners privacy, and perhaps also easing embarrassment for the church.

Venezuela has been crippled by food and medicine shortages and failing public services such as water, electricity and transport.

President Nicolas Maduro's government has finally decided to act -- but the decision to shave five zeros off the currency, known as re-denomination, has been roundly criticized by analysts who say it fails to address the root causes of Venezuela's economic meltdown.

- Receipts replace money -

In the meantime, bank notes are so scarce that they changes hands for three times their face value on the black market.

It's not just bank card payments being accepted by churches, but also bank transfers.

At the Precious Blood church in an upmarket Caracas neighborhood, Juan Manuel Leon's congregation drop their bank transfer receipts in collection baskets to prove their generosity.

"Paper money is replaced by transfer receipts. That's how they're solving the problem," Leon, 52, told AFP.

It's a form of payment used also for weddings and christenings.

Leon says his parishioners have suggested he install a payment terminal "at the entrance, and when we pass it we'll pay and then drop the receipt" in the collection basket.

"People get creative in a crisis," added Leon,

The problem is that ingenuity can only get you so far.

Banks don't have payment terminals to hand out to clients, and some companies sell them for $600 each: that's 300 times the salary of many people.

With little in terms of donations coming in, priests have had to make savings wherever possible.

No longer do they hand out free leaflets with the Sunday bible readings, and candles are extinguished as soon as mass is over to make them last longer.

Leon had to collect flour, scarce in these parts, for the nuns who make communion wafers. Other priests were sent back to Spain due to a lack of medicine.

"We ask God to keep us in good health because there aren't any medicines, or when there are they cost a ton," he said.

- Wine rations -

Wine, too, has had to be rationed, down from buying crates to making do with two bottles a month delivered by the archdiocese.

"Just dip the little finger" in the wine, said Leon with a resigned laugh.

He, too, has had to limit weddings and baptisms, while religious retreats are viewed with suspicion lest they be used as an excuse to escape the country.

"I hope that Venezuela recovers, not just politically and economically, but also morally," said Leon.

Outside Suarez's San Alfonso church, unemployed 41-year-old Yaneth Chacon waits for mass to finish to beg for food.

At 6 pm, she and her two pale-looking children, aged three and 12, say they have only eaten a half loaf of bread all day.

"I don't like to bother churches but what can I do?" said the skinny mother.

Her wait did not prove in vain as she returned home with beans, pasta and cereal.

"I thank God and the priest, because it's difficult for him, too. Many people seek him out to ask" for food.