After much criticism, Bolivian president Evo Morales announced earlier this week that his government would repeal a new law that seemed set to make evangelism a crime.
The new penal code, adopted by Bolivia’s parliament in December, placed the “recruitment of persons for their participation in religious organisations or cults” alongside recruitment for armed conflicts, organ extraction, forced labour and sexual exploitation. The punishment would have been 7–12 years in prison.
The proposal caused widespread protests and strikes, with many Bolivian Christians, including Catholic and Protestant church leaders, fearing it could lead eventually to evangelism being made a crime.
On Sunday (21 January) the president made a televised announcement that the proposed law would be repealed “to avoid confusion”, as well as the “destabilisation of the country by the political right”.
Hemos decidido abrogar el Código del Sistema Penal para evitar confusiones y que la derecha deje de conspirar y no tenga argumentos para generar desestabilización en el país, con desinformación y mentiras. Enviaremos una carta a la Asamblea Legislativa en los próximos días.
— Evo Morales Ayma (@evoespueblo) January 21, 2018
In a report for the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America, Dennis Petri said it remained to be seen whether parliament would withdraw the law and open it up for another round of discussions, delaying it another year.
Although this would give civil society an opportunity to raise their concerns, Petri said it is uncertain how many amendments would get through “as Morales has already declared that he does not expect the current version of the Criminal Code to change substantially”.
Petri highlighted the country’s poor track-record on religious freedom, noting a law passed in March 2013, under which all churches and NGOs were forced to re-register or close.
High taxes for both Catholic and Protestant churches adds to the pressure, he said, while church leaders fear that the increase in government regulations is “interfering” with their internal affairs and could lead eventually to the government “defining what is, and is not, a church and thus restricting religious freedom”.
Of the new proposal, Petri added: “It is strange for religious organisations to be mentioned on the same line as armed conflict, in a legislative article that deals with human trafficking, which Bolivian law conceives very broadly to include co-optation of persons against their will.
“The provision is viewed by many analysts as a contradiction to the constitutional right to religious freedom [as] the law is perceived to equate the engagement in armed conflict and other criminal activities with the involvement in religious organizations”.
The proposed Criminal Code also included articles that upset other groups, like doctors and journalists. “Changes … also expand punishment of ‘recklessness, negligence, malpractice’ in all careers,” Christianity Today reported.
Petri said that since “the Code would enter into force at the time of the 2019 general elections, many are concerned that any opposition voices would effectively be silenced”.
In November Bolivia’s Constitutional Court “lifted constitutional limits on re-election”, paving the way for President Morales to run again for president in 2019, for would what be a fourth term in office. The Court’s decision came two years after Bolivians voted in a referendum against lifting term limits.