Update January 23, 2018, Bolivia
The same day Bolivia’s evangelical leaders led a national day of prayer and fasting to protest their socialist government making evangelism a crime, the nation’s president, Evo Morales Ayma announced that he will tell the South American nation’s Legislative Assembly to change the law.
Morales tweeted, “We have decided to repeal the Criminal Code to avoid confusion and so the Right stops conspiring and doesn’t have arguments to generate destabilization in the country, with disinformation and lies. We are going to listen to the proposals of all the sectors that observe the code. The National Government will never approve norms against the Bolivian people.”
He later repeated the promise on state television “I don’t want to keep using Banzer’s Code,” said Morales, referring to the system put in place by former dictator and president Hugo Banzer. “I ask the assembly … to rapidly advance a new code. I’m almost positive there will be a few changes and modifications to the articles.”
There are approximately 2 million evangelical Christians in Bolivia who have been told to stop telling others about their faith.
Those who refuse could face five to 12 years in prison.
That’s the penalty resulting from a new law in the socialist nation titled Article 88. It went into effect on December 15, 2017, and states “whoever recruits, transports, deprives of freedom or hosts people with the aim of recruiting them to take part in armed conflicts or religious or worship organizations will be penalized five to 12 years of imprisonment,” according to a translation by Evangelical Focus, a media initiative of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.
Evangelicals represent approximately 19 percent of the total population. The legislation would affect other religious groups as well, such as Roman Catholics.
Christians in Bolivia Have Questions
The extent to which they will be affected isn’t yet known. “Will they denounce us if we bring a group of people to a Christian camp? Will I no longer be able to preach the Gospel on the streets?” pastor Miguel Machaca Monroy, President of the coalition of evangelical churches in the capital city asked.
The National Association of Evangelicals in Bolivia (ANDEB) also criticized the new penal code.
“It is deplorable that Bolivia becomes the first Latin American country to persecute the rights of freedom of conscience and of religion, which are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the declaration of San José de Costa Rica, and our Constitution. Christian evangelical churches in our country are institutions aiming to rehabilitate the human being, improve the moral, spiritual, ethical and social conditions of our citizens. Now, we have been put in a situation in which practicing the Gospel has been criminalized.”
In an additional statement issued after the new law had been approved ANDEB stated the code “is imprecise, ambiguous, badly written, contradictory and its punitive power can constitute state abuse.”
A Challenge to the Constitution of Bolivia
The changes were approved several weeks after Bolivia’s Constitutional Court lifted term limits, allowing President Evo Morales to run for office indefinitely.
Bolivia’s government, which has close ties with Cuba and Venezuela, has cracked down on all forms of dissent, particularly those coming from Christian churches. ANDEB is pushing for “dialogue” involving the government, opposition parties, and other social groups to work toward a solution without the use of violence. The group argues that everyday citizens have had little input into the changes in the penal code.
The group’s statement continues:
“We express our most resolute rejection of the inclusion of our ministerial activities in the list of possible conducts that go against the law. The legislator forgets that the evangelical Christian churches in Bolivia are religious organizations recognized by the Bolivian state, and, therefore, legal entities.”
The Bolivian Constitution specifically protects religious freedom and freedom of worship.
Morales, the Andean nation’s first indigenous president, has been walking the country back from its official Catholicism since 2013. When Pope Francis visited Bolivia in 2015, Morales presented the pontiff with a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle, the Communist symbol uniting labor and peasants.
Faith groups are not the only ones that are opposing the plans of the government. Journalists have also denounced the penal code because it will severely restrict freedom of speech and the freedom of media.
And recently, after a 43-day strike from medical professionals, Morales requested that the legislative assembly repeal several articles that would have imprisoned anyone who caused “damage to the health” of another person while “in the exercise of his profession, trade or activity.”
This Sunday, evangelical churches in Bolivia will observe a day of prayer and fasting in light of the new restrictions.