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Bolivian church leaders say new law threatens rightscomment (0)

September 5, 2013

Protestant church leaders in Bolivia are trying to revoke a new law they say aims to “impose contrary beliefs” and “denies us the right to be a church.”

Law 351 for Granting of Juridical Personality to Churches and Religious Groups, passed in March, requires all churches and not-for-profit organizations to re-register their legal charters with the government. This involves supplying detailed data on membership, financial activity and organizational leadership.

In addition, government officials are not granting legal status to newly formed evangelical churches, pending approval of regulations being formulated by the Registry Office of Worship, according to leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals of Bolivia (ANDEB). The proposed statutes violate the constitution in terms similar to those of Law 351, ANDEB leaders say.

Protestant leaders assert that, taken together, the new measures grant the government regulatory power over the internal affairs of churches to the point of defining what is and is not a church.

“They (government officials) want to control the activities of the evangelical churches,” Agustín Aguilera, president of ANDEB, told the Santa Cruz newspaper El Deber. “Article 15 (of the law) would force all religious organizations to carry out our activities within the parameters of the ‘horizon of good living,’ which is based on the [ethnic] Aymara worldview. This is an imposition of a cultural and spiritual worldview totally foreign to ours.”

President Evo Morales identifies himself ethnically as Aymara, although he also claims to be a “grassroots Catholic.” Aymara-speakers form the second largest indigenous group in Bolivia, after Quechuas.

Ironically Morales assumed office in 2006 with promises of greater religious freedom. The first indigenous Andean to be democratically elected president of Bolivia, he abolished the historic domination of the Roman Catholic Church over religious affairs.

The constitution of February 2009 established a “secular state” designed to be neutral in matters of faith and conscience. 

The country’s Protestant Christian population, which had long sought church and state separation, initially welcomed the new political order. They assumed a secular state meant the end of religious discrimination.

Protestant leaders now fear, however, that pre-Colombian animism is replacing Roman Catholicism as the official state religion. Morales’s administration routinely invites amautas (folk doctors) to bless government ceremonies, instead of Roman Catholic priests as per traditional protocol.

At Morales’s invitation, ANDEB leaders have been working since 2010 to formulate a law to guarantee freedom of religion. They believe the legislation is needed to ensure that constitutional guarantees be respected.

Their effort so far has gone unrewarded. Despite his repeated public statements that freedom of worship is a priority, Morales has yet to follow through on his promise to introduce the religious liberty legislation to parliament.

Nor has he responded to a letter ANDEB officials presented him in 2012 asking for an audience to discuss the religious liberty bill. Instead, Morales signed the restrictive Law 351 in the face of evangelical objections.

Asserting that Law 351 is unconstitutional, ANDEB stated in late August that it was planning to file suit before the Plurinational Legislative Assembly demanding that it be revoked. Christian leaders argue its re-registration requirements restrict the “rights and religious freedoms of churches.”

“ANDEB attorneys (also) plan to introduce the Law for Religious Liberty to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly,” said Ruth Montaño, legal adviser and former board member of ANDEB. “And we expect a positive response from congressional members.”

At the same time, ANDEB is initiating a national petition campaign and consultations with parliamentary representatives in every department (state) of the country, she said.

“Should all else fail, we plan to file an ‘abstract of unconstitutionality’ against Law 351 before the Constitutional Tribune in order to protect our rights,” Montaño said.

In addition to the re-registration requirement, the law stipulates a standardized administrative structure for all “religious organizations” that church groups must adopt.

“This would force churches to betray their true ecclesiastical traditions,” Montaño said. “The measure deprives them of any autonomy to follow their original faith convictions.”

Churches failing to complete the re-registration within a two-year period would lose their legal right to exist.

ANDEB organized protest marches by an estimated 20,000 people Aug. 17 in five cities throughout the country to state their opposition to the policies of Morales’ administration.

Steve Flook, a Southern Baptist representative in Bolivia, said the new law may affect the spread of the gospel there in the same way government restrictions have in countries on the other side of the world.

“In a sense this new law … could very well force a movement of new churches to be started in homes, which would be a good thing,” he said.

Flook and others have been training others to share their faith, make disciples and spread their faith through house churches. “Many Bible studies have been started in homes with the purpose of starting new churches.”

As in most South American countries, Protestant worship was banned in Bolivia until about 100 years ago. Today evangelical Christians represent 16 percent of the country’s population of 10 million, according to Operation World.


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