Bolivian Evangelicals Celebrate New Religious Freedom Law

After 183 years as a Roman Catholic nation, Bolivia officially became a secular country in 2009, when a new constitution, promulgated by the administration of its first indigenous leader, President Evo Morales, dropped any mention of the historic faith of its Spanish colonial rulers, bolstering the position of its precolonial religions.

But the surprising winners in the transition to the new constitution have been the country’s long-ignored evangelical Christians.

Angered when the 2009 charter failed to recognize them, Protestant denominations have spent the past decade mobilizing their growing numbers of followers, finally forcing a religious freedom law that codifies their tax status and, perhaps more importantly, giving them standing in Bolivian society.

“For the first time, the religious entities have a legal identity, with the rights to self-determination and independence from the State,” said Munir Chiquie, president of the National Association of Evangelicals of Bolivia, also referred to as ANDEB.

The turning point for the evangelicals’ long campaign for recognition came in December of 2017, when Morales’ administration replaced the penal code written under Bolivia’s dictatorial president, the former Gen. Hugo Banzer, who is also credited with shepherding the country toward democracy in the 1980s.

Evangelical Christians, led by ANDEB, protested a provision of the new penal code, Article 88, aimed at combating terrorism and trafficking, that established a 12-year prison sentence for anyone who “captures, transports, transfers, deprives of freedom, welcomes or hosts persons” with the purpose of recruiting them for “participation in armed conflicts or in religious or cult organizations.”

Bolivia is located in central South
America. Map courtesy of Creative

Christians charged that Article 88’s language was so expansive and vaguely written that it could result in the persecution of clergy for evangelizing. The article sparked criticism across South America, and evangelicals stirred fears that it would result in the criminalization of preaching in public. ANDEB organized a national day of fasting and prayer in protest.

President Morales denied that the measure was intended to quash evangelizing, but within two months of promulgating the new code, he moved to have it revoked. “It became clear afterwards that the article had been poorly written and its real intent was not to criminalize us,” said Chiquie. “But we protested it, and the law — which had other major problems — was suspended.”

This intermediate victory prompted the evangelicals to press for additional changes. They revived their criticisms of the 2009 constitution, which they felt privileged traditional Andean beliefs that pre-date the Inca empire, and strongly opposed new bills concerning sexuality and gender. In 2017, an article of the law of gender identity that allowed same-sex marriage was declared invalid by Bolivia’s Constitutional Court.

“Another menace to religious freedom was posed by the emergence of themes such as gender ideology,” said Chiquie. “Some segments of society were proposing restrictions on the right of the evangelicals to disagree with them.” It had also become gradually harder for evangelical leaders to express their views in schools and in the media, he said.

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Source: Religion News Service