Concern over religious freedom in Bolivia

29 January 2018

Christians in the central Latin American country of Bolivia were alarmed by the content of a recently passed law. On December 15, 2017, Bolivian lawmakers approved a new penal code that criminalized evangelism and other religious activities.

Article 88.11 of the code stated: “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 with 7 to 12 years of imprisonment.”

Evangelicals feared that, if rigorously applied, the new version of the penal code could criminalize inviting someone to a Christian event, transporting a group of people to a Christian camp, or preaching the gospel openly in Bolivian streets.

Surprisingly, Article 88:11 passed, though clearly contrary to Article 4 of the country’s constitution (promulgated in 2009) which states, "The state respects and guarantees religious liberty and spiritual beliefs, in accordance with its worldview. The state is independent from religion."

Naturally, Bolivian Evangelicals, who make up 16 per cent of the country’s population (Catholics being the largest religious group, at 77 per cent), were alarmed by what the National Association of Evangelicals in Bolivia (ANDEB) called “state abuse.” The ANDEB stated that “Article 88.11 paves the way for interested interpretations that can be used against our religious organizations.”

(Other amendments to the code also permitted abortion during the first eight weeks of pregnancy and expanded punishment of “recklessness, negligence, malpractice” in all careers – drawing great concern from a variety of professionals including doctors and journalists.)

In response, evangelical Christians in Bolivia prayerfully protested the changes to the penal code in the streets on January 13, 2018. On Sunday, January 21, evangelical churches were called on to observe a day of prayer and fasting regarding this worrisome law.

Their prayers and protests were heard. On Monday, January 22, President Evo Morales Ayma announced his decision to instruct the Bolivian Legislative Assembly to repeal the entire penal code and asked that a new code be quickly drafted.

However, his decision also came with a challenge when he declared (translation of his tweet):

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.

Had this law come into effect, Bolivia would have become the first Latin American country to restrict religion, a right protected by Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which Bolivia ratified on August 12, 1982), which says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

While there is reason to celebrate President Evo Morales’ repeal of Article 88.11, there is still concern given the apparent tension between the government and what it calls the “right wing.” There are also concerns about how recent protests may have affected that relationship.

Bolivian Christians, and Evangelicals around the world, will be watching for what the new draft penal code includes, and praying for their religious freedom.

Please also watch, and pray.

  1. Pray for President Evo Morales Ayma and the Bolivian government as they draft a new penal code. Pray that God would give them understanding and wisdom, securing for their citizens the right to practise their faith openly in accordance with the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights.
  2. Pray that all levels of government would protect religious freedom in Bolivia.
  3. Pray for wisdom, grace and steadfastness for Bolivian Christians, as they continue to monitor and engage with their government.
  4. Pray for the National Association of Evangelicals in Bolivia (ANDEB) as it seeks to inform and guide Bolivian Evangelicals.

Author: Anita Levesque