Venezuela inflation: Churches forced to accept donations by cards

Caracas: 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 per cent 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 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.

In the meantime, bank notes are so scarce that they change hands for three times their face value on the black market. It's not only about bank card payments being accepted by churches but also about bank transfers.

At the Precious Blood church, in an upmarket Caracas neighbourhood, 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.


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