Bolivian Christians ask for prayer as government restricts activities

By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist

Churches in Bolivia have issued a call to prayer and fasting in the wake of new restrictions on religious freedom imposed by the country’s socialist president.

A Baptist World Alliance (BWA) news release encouraged Baptists worldwide to support the Bolivian church’s call to prayer.

“Global Baptists are encouraged to join Bolivian Christians who have declared Sunday, Jan. 21, a day of prayer and fasting. They are also urged to make representations to Bolivian diplomatic missions in their respective countries on BWA concerns on the new law,” the BWA statement read.

In a statement to Bolivia’s legislative assembly, BWA general secretary Elijah Brown said he has heard from key Bolivian leaders as well as from leaders across Latin America of their concerns related to newly passed Article 88 of Bolivia’s penal code.

Authorized Dec. 15, 2017, the new law includes an article to stop the activities of both criminal groups and religious organizations, lumping both together in the wording of the law, according to Evangelical Focus, a media initiative of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.

The organization’s translation of Article 88.11 reads: “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 7 to 12 years of imprisonment.”

Christians in Bolivia fear the new law could ban not only preaching but even the act of inviting someone to a Christian event.

Silencing 2 million

“The new penal code would silence the around 2 million evangelical Christians representing approximately 19 percent of the total population. The legislation would affect other religious groups as well, such as Roman Catholics,” Evangelical Focus reported on its website.

In his statement, Brown expressed concern “that the ambiguity of these laws could lead to unintended restrictions on religious freedom and to the direct persecution of churches and individuals of faith. My concern is not just for Baptists alone but for all who might find themselves unable to live according to the dictates of their conscience.”

Affirming his support for the prayer effort, Brown noted Bolivia’s rich history of freedom of religious expression and urged modification or repeal of the new law.

Winds of change

Historically, according to the U.S. State Department, the Bolivian constitution has protected religious freedom and in practice the government generally has enforced these protections.

However, since his election in 2005, Bolivian President Evo Morales, a socialist and the Andean country’s first indigenous president, has pushed constitutional reform with an emphasis on Bolivian national identity, including placing more restrictions on Christian churches and promoting an animist worldview that emphasizes spirituality in the natural world.

Though Bolivia’s constitution places presidential term limits, Bolivia’s Constitutional Court lifted those restrictions in late 2017, despite a 2016 national referendum in which Bolivians voted against lifting term limits. The more restrictive laws were enacted shortly after the court’s decision.

The new regulations leave Christian leaders wondering what forms of ministry have been criminalized and which are acceptable.

“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?” asked Pastor Miguel Machaca Monroy, president of the Coalition of Evangelical Churches in the capital city of Sucre.

Other groups are concerned about the new laws too. Evangelical Focus reported that journalists also have denounced the new law, fearing it will restrict freedom of speech and freedom of media. Christianity Today reported that doctors are concerned about wording that expands punishment of “recklessness, negligence (and) malpractice” in all careers.

‘Emergency alert’

Evangelical leaders in Bolivia urged the government to work toward solutions without the use of violence, and the National Association of Evangelicals in Bolivia said it will “maintain the emergency alert of the evangelical people in Bolivia, and as a consequence, events, gatherings, prayer meetings and meetings of spiritual intercessions for our country will be organized in all cities and places where there are evangelical Christian churches and organizations,” as reported in Christianity Today.