COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (BP) -- Evangelical 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."
Asserting that Law 351 is unconstitutional, the National Association of Evangelicals of Bolivia (ANDEB) has announced it is filing suit against the law, carrying its case to the nation's Plurinational Legislative Assembly.
Under previous law, all churches and other NGOs in Bolivia had to register with the governor's office in their respective states to gain legal recognition. The new statute requires all churches and nonprofit organizations to re-register their legal charters with the government. This involves supplying detailed data on membership, financial activity and organizational leadership. The law also stipulates a standardized administrative structure for all "religious organizations."
"This would force churches to betray their true ecclesiastical traditions," Ruth Montaño, ANDEB legal adviser, told Morning Star News. "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 on Aug. 17 in five cities throughout Bolivia to state their opposition to the policies of President Evo Morales's administration. At the heart of the demonstrations was opposition to Law 351, which was passed in March.
"They 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 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.
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 ANDEB leaders. The proposed statutes violate Bolivia's constitution in terms similar to those of Law 351, they say.
Evangelical leaders assert that, taken together, the new measures grant the Bolivian government regulatory power over the internal affairs of churches to the point of defining what is and is not a church.
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. Bolivia's Protestant 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' 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. 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 last year asking for an audience to discuss the religious liberty bill. Instead, Morales signed the restrictive Law 351 over evangelical objections.
"Along with the suit to revoke Law 351, ANDEB attorneys plan to introduce the Law for Religious Liberty to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly," Montaño said. "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.
A landlocked country sandwiched between Brazil, Peru and Chile, Bolivia banned Protestant worship (similar to most South American countries) until about 100 years ago. Today evangelical Christians represent 16 percent of the country's population of 10 million, according to Operation World.
This story first appeared at Morning Star News (www.MorningStarNews.org), an independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians worldwide.
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