LAS CRUCES, N.M. (RNS)-- When Bishop Ricardo Ramirez enters a church, hecarries a crosier, or shepherd's staff, as the chief shepherd of southernNew Mexico's Catholics. Lately, he's been worried about a few lost sheep. "There is a lot of this sheep-stealing going on," Ramirez says overdinner in the picturesque Old Mesilla district. The culprit: fast-growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches who lureMexican immigrants away from their native Catholic faith. Further north, in Santa Fe, Archbishop Michael Sheehan is also lookingfor a few lost sheep. Sheehan, slightly annoyed, blames the "intenseproselytism" of some Protestant churches. "They have their own agenda, and they feel they have the truth, sothey're going to go ahead and try to steal the sheep," he says. Here along America's desert frontier, a friendly -- and sometimesnot-so-friendly -- competition has been raging between Catholics andconservative Protestants to attract the constant flow of migrants comingacross the border. The attraction for both churches is obvious. Hispanics are now thefastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and experts agree the futureof church growth for any denomination lies in its ability to attract andretain Hispanic members. It's not solely a border issue. In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George saidagressive proselytism by Protestants has "complicated ecumenicalrelationships." A Lutheran church on the city's South Side came under firelast year for advertising "Missa en espanol" -- Mass in Spanish. Some Hispanics had baptized their children in the La Sagrada Familiachurch, not realizing it was not Catholic. With holy water dispensers andstatues of the Virgin Mary, the confusion was not surprising. Chicago's Lutheran bishop was shocked. "If that is true, that's thething I want to get to the bottom of. If there is deception involved, Idon't want to be part of it," Bishop Paul Landahl told the Sun-Times lastAugust. Last November, it drew the attention of the U.S. Conference of CatholicBishops. In a new blueprint for Hispanic ministry, the bishops listedProtestant proselytism as a "challenge." Evangelical churches, theyadmitted, often are better at fostering "a notion of church as extendedfamily that provides Hispanics with a sense of belonging to God's family." As many as 40 percent of the country's 62 million Roman Catholics areHispanic. New Mexico is 23.7 percent Catholic. The bishops are concernedthat only 13 percent of seminarians studying for the priesthood areHispanic. A recent study from the City University of New York, however, found thatCatholic leaders may have more to worry about than evangelicals. The CUNYstudy found that the number of Hispanic Catholics dropped from 66 percent in1990 to 57 percent in 2001, while the percentage of Hispanics with "noreligion" doubled from 6 percent to 13 percent over the same time period. In short, Hispanics aren't necessarily leaving for Protestant churches.Most are leaving for no church at all. "If we have a good priest or deacon who is Spanish-speaking and canminister effectively to the newly arrived, they stay Catholic," Sheehansaid. "If we don't have someone who can minister to them, we lose them ...obviously I think the Catholic Church has to work harder at feeding its ownpeople so that they stay Catholic." In Las Cruces, Ramirez has hired a full-time prison chaplain to stem thelosses to evangelical ministries that flourish inside prison walls. "Often,they go in as Catholic and come out as Protestant," he lamented. The Rev. Barbara Dua, executive director of the New Mexico Conference ofChurches, said the "sheep-stealing" phenomenon has been an ongoing issue forher conference, made up of 481 Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. "It's been an open discussion among our members, but there hasn't beenanimosity among our members because our members don't seem to be theproblem," said Dua, a Presbyterian. In many ways, however, the competition for souls between Catholics andProtestants is nothing new. But with the growth potential seen in theHispanic population, the issue has taken on a new urgency. Protestants say there is no "organized campaign" to steal Catholicsaway. "It's not anything evangelicals are doing on purpose," said the Rev.Paul Hutsell, a retired Assemblies of God missionary who lives in Ruidoso,N.M. Hutsell spent 44 years working in South America, and said HispanicChristians are hungry for a relationship with God that is "much morevibrant, much more alive" than the ritual-heavy Catholic faith. Hutsell said "we owe so much to the Catholic Church" for instilling astrong religious devotion among Hispanics. Mexico, for example, is one ofthe world's most devout Christian nations. But he said migrants who seek outsocial programs from Protestant churches are often looking for somethingmore.

"The big attraction for these migrant workers is that the evangelicalsoffer them a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whereas the CatholicChurch more or less offers them a relationship with the Catholic Church."