WASHINGTON (AFP) - Although Argentine-born Pope Francis is largely popular in Latin America, the number of adults in the region who describe themselves as Catholic is falling, says a study published on Thursday.
In a study of 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the US territory of Puerto Rico, the Pew Research Center said the Roman Catholic church is losing adherents to Protestant faiths or seeing them abandon organised religion altogether.
The study said that historical data suggest that from 1900 through the 1960s at least 90 per cent of Latin America's population was Catholic.
But today 69 per cent of adults polled identified themselves as Catholic, the study said.
Latin America has more than 425 million Catholics, who account for nearly 40 per cent of the world's Catholic population, the center said.
But the number of people switching to other religions, mainly Protestant churches, is on the rise.
According to the report, 84 per cent of today's Latin American adults say they were raised as Catholics. That is 15 percentage points more than those who still call themselves Catholic.
At the same time, membership of Protestant churches and people who say they are not affiliated with any church are increasing.
Nine per cent of Latin Americans say they were raised as Protestants, but almost one in five now call themselves Protestants.
"In nearly every country surveyed, the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organised religion altogether," the study said.
As to why Catholics are leaving the church, Pew said that of eight answers available in the poll, the most frequently chosen was that people were "seeking a more personal connection with God".
The study said that in general Latin America has embraced the former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit who was elected pope in March 2013 and took the name Francis.
In his native country, 91 per cent of those polled have a favourable view of the pontiff. But that support is uneven across the region.
"Among former Catholics, relatively few give the pope a positive rating, with many saying it is too soon to rate him," the study said.
"Similarly, while majorities of Catholics in most countries describe the election of Francis as representing a major change for the Catholic Church, this view is held by much smaller shares of former Catholics," it added.