Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Religion

BOLIVIA: Christian Groups Stir Up Debate over New Constitution

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jan 16 2009 (IPS) - “Did you know they want to throw God out of Bolivia?” asks a television spot frequently broadcast by opponents of leftwing Bolivian President Evo Morales ahead of the Jan. 25 referendum on constitutional reform.

The reform proposed by the government eliminates the clause in the current constitution in which the Bolivian state “recognises and upholds the apostolic Roman Catholic religion” as the country’s official religion.

The Catholic Church is not formally taking sides in the debate, but the opposition is using the proposed change as one of its arguments against the reform.

With their ads, opponents “are using the media for manipulation,” says Catholic priest and anthropologist Xavier Albó, who believes that the spirit of pluralism touted by the government will not restrict the activities of his Church.

A debate about religious faith “is out of place, because the draft constitutional reform in no way proposes an atheist state, nor does it condemn religions,” lawmaker José Pimentel of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party told IPS.

“It’s an artificial problem, and the Catholic Church itself has stated that it has nothing to do with the question asked in the ad,” he said.

The reform to be submitted to the popular vote was approved by the Constitutional Assembly charged with rewriting the constitution, and amended and approved by Congress on Oct. 21, 2008. It proposes a “refounding of the republic” in the context of a “democratic and cultural revolution.”

“Choose God, Vote No,” says one of the advertising spots paid for by a group called Iglesias Re Unidas (roughly, Re-United Churches), which is not legally recognised as an organisation and lacks the support of Catholic Church authorities.

Article 4 of the draft constitution says that the state respects and guarantees freedom of religion and of spiritual beliefs, according to their worldviews, and that the state is “independent from religion.”

This is a change from Article 3 of the current constitution, in which the state “recognises and upholds the apostolic Roman Catholic religion,” although it “guarantees the public practice of every other religion.”

Relations with the Catholic Church are to be governed by means of concordats and agreements between the Bolivian state and the Holy See, both the current and the proposed constitutions say.

Albó said that until 1880, Catholicism had been the official religion in Bolivia. Later reforms opened up more opportunities for other religious faiths, but Catholicism remains the major religious influence in the country.

As in many Catholic countries, the Apostolic Nuncio (the Vatican’s ambassador) acts as head of the diplomatic corps in official ceremonies. On national and provincial holidays, the Catholic Church celebrates a thanksgiving mass which is attended by the president, vice president and the ministerial cabinet.

The National Institute of Statistics (INE) estimates that 56.55 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 36.45 percent belongs to Protestant (either mainstream or neo-Pentecostal) churches.

Relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the Morales administration are somewhat strained. Cardinal Julio Terrazas, the senior Catholic prelate, criticised government policies and aligned himself with opposition pro-autonomy movements when he voted in favour of autonomy in the unofficial referendum held by the government of the province of Santa Cruz on May 4, 2008.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western altiplano or highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the richer eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product.

These provinces are demanding self-determination and greater regional control over natural gas revenues. Large landowners are also opposed to the agrarian reform provisions in the draft constitution.

Other priests, like Albó, support the government of Morales, who took office in January 2006.

José Antonio Aruquipa, a representative of the rightwing Social and Democratic Power (Podemos) party in the constituent assembly, told IPS that the leaders of the Iglesias Re Unidas campaign are playing the religious card, complete with images of Jesus Christ, “because of President Morales’ belligerent attitude and constant attacks on the Catholic Church.”

“In this case they are using people’s fears about the president’s attitude, not about the contents of the constitution itself,” he said.

In Aruquipa’s view, Article 4 of the draft constitution reflects the current situation of relations between the state and the Catholic Church, which has no influence on government decisions.

Other articles guarantee freedom for religious education and confirm already existing agreements on schools run by different faith communities in Bolivia, he said.

“I am a practicing, devout Catholic and active in the Church,” said MAS lawmaker Pimentel, who has fought for social and trade union causes ever since he worked as a miner for a state mining company.

Pimentel praised the progress achieved by Popes John XXIII (1958-1963) and Paul VI (1963-1978), who in his view “combated discriminatory and colonialist practices,” and he recognised the role of the Church in affirming democratic values.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags