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Evo Morales and the Roman Catholic Church

The socialist administration of Bolivian President Evo Morales has not always had a good relationship with the Bolivian hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. This has become a problem for Morales as polls taken in the early 2000s indicate that 77% of the Bolivian population say they are Catholic, meaning that about seven million of the nine million Bolivians follow the Roman Catholic faith. When faced with a Morales policy that they disagree with, Catholic Bishops of Bolivia are able to inspire large demonstrations against the measures. The Catholic Church draws most of its support from the cities, and little from the higher rural areas (where Morales draws his main support) due to "a lack of resources and to indigenous cultural resistance to Church efforts to replace traditional attitudes". Morales has stated that he is a Catholic,, he like many rural Bolivians was raised with a combination of Catholicism and belief in "the Pachamama or Mother Earth figure, as well as on Ekeko, a traditional indigenous god of luck, harvests, and general abundance". Other indigenous leaders like Felix Patzi (see below) follow a pure indigenous faith and "discard all forms of Christianity; however, this effort has not led to a significant increase in the number of "indigenous-belief only" worshippers."

The special place given to Catholicism in Bolivia can be seen in Article 3 of the Bolivian constitution, which says, The State recognizes and sustains the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Religion. It guarantees the public exercise of all other faiths. Relations with the Catholic Church shall be governed by concordats and agreements between the Bolivian State and the Holy See. The United States State Department has characterized this as "the Constitution recognizes it [Catholicism] as the official religion", a statement that the comments of Bolivian Bishops (see below) would seem to disagree with.

Bolivian Catholic theocracy?

On June 18 2006, the Archbishop of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Cardinal Julio Terrazas, addressed the rumors that congressional candidates to the Bolivian parliament were saying that the Catholic Church was demanding to be made the official religion of Bolivia. In his Sunday sermon the cardinal assured people that they were not seeking or fighting to achieve such a goal. He pointed out that the bishops had until recently been open to reviewing the Bolivian constitutions article that granted special recognition to the role of Catholicism. The cardinal said, They keep saying we are fighting for that article. Not so! Let it be reviewed, but let it be done intelligently and fully. Lets not deny that this country has truly received the seeds of the Kingdom of justice and of truth that the Lord has brought, and that that has been part of her history, and that is why in so many parts of Bolivia we are proud to be Catholics. The cardinal pointed out that Catholicism had stopped being the official state religion of Bolivia since 1967 and said the Church is merely asking for respect and recognition of the work she has done. He said those who are calling for secularism are hiding their other intentions to strip Bolivia of religion and order a country in such a way that God is not present.

Church land seized

In early June, 2006 the socialist party of Evo Morales (Movimiento al Socialismo) seized lands adjacent to a Marian Shrine in Copacabana. These lands where originally given to the shrine decades ago by the Bolivian government so that income derived by use of the land would help support the shrine. At the seizure party loyalists declared that they were taking only the unproductive lands of the Church, and the land was divided into seven lots and several trees were cut down. Father Obermaier, in charge of the shrine called for the government to resolve the situation.

Call to stop having Catholic feast days as national holidays

On July 27, 2006 while the education reform controversy was ongoing (see below) the Socialist Senator Antonio Peredo joined with other members of Morales Movimiento al Socialismo in the Bolivian Parliament to call for an end of recognizing Catholic feast days such as Corpus Christi and All Saints Day as national holidays. The suggested policy was to only recognize Holy Week and Christmas. For the nationally recognized holidays to change the policy would have to be approved by the full Parliament.

Conflict over religious classes in state schools

In early June of 2006, Bolivian Education Minister Felix Patzi working under President Evo Morales declared that education will emphatically be secular and no longer Catholic. Religion classes will now be optional instead of obligatory. There will be a course on the history of religions: indigenous, Arabic, or Catholic. The reform called for secular education that respects the beliefs, the spirituality of indigenous and native nations and of the Bolivian nations as the basis of individual and communitarian rights. The Bolivian Roman Catholic hierarchy immediately opposed this proposal and saw it as an attack on religion in Bolivia they were outspoken against the measure and organized protests against it.

Announcement by Patzi

In June of 2006 Minister Felix Patzi brought organizational opposition against the Morales governments' ideas when he declared that "Catholicism would no longer be the official religion taught at schools." Patzis said that he wanted to end the the religious monopoly of the Catholic faith in schools and allow all faith to be taught from oriental religions to those practiced by our native peoples. He said he end the policy that makes Catholic religious classes obligatory for students, and called the existing system colonial. In an interview with the newspaper La Razon, Patzi said, In Bolivia the people are not only Catholic, but also of other religious faiths. He stated his fear of the issue leading to confrontation among Bolivians.

After protests by the Catholic hierarchy Patzi clarified that the sectarian Roman Catholic classes taught in state schools would be replaced with a "history of religions" class that would include a focus on traditional indigenous beliefs alongside Catholicism and other faiths practiced in Bolivia. Patzi said that Catholicism would no longer be the official religion of the countrys educational system. The Morales governments announced its policy as a call for secular education that respects the beliefs, the spirituality of indigenous and native nations and of the Bolivian nations as the basis of individual and communitarian rights. It was announced that the proposal would come before the National Assembly for a vote on August 6, 2006.

Bishops critique Patzi

Immediately after Patzi's statements Archbishop Tito Solari of Cochabamba said the Morales government must be consistent when it talks about respecting beliefs, which implies respecting the Catholic beliefs of the majority of Bolivians. He defended the existence of Covenant schools which are administered by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but are paid for by Bolivian taxes drawn from both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Solari said Parents are the first and foremost educators of their children, therefore they have the right to choose the kind of education they want. families are very appreciative of the schools that are administered by the Church, which serve the community and, in a special way, those in need. He defined what he thought was the proper role of the government saying, The state and the institutions of civil society can contribute, in a democratic atmosphere, to people choosing the best educational model for the integral and critical formation of persons.

In mid-June, 2006 a spokeswoman for the Bolivian Bishops Committee on Education demanded that the Morales government clarify its position on religious instruction in state schools. She said, We are anxious, not out of fear but out of concern, that the government define its position in order to begin dialogue. She took issue with Patzi labeling the current system as colonialist, saying he is ignoring the Churchs contribution to culture, education, health care and development in Bolivia. She pointed out that the Church respects other beliefs and is not asking for Catholicism to be forced upon the people. She accused the socialist Morales government of having an anti-faith bias, I think the problem is not with the Church, but with the faith of the people who are 80% Catholic.

Responding to Patzi's comments the Archbishop of Santa Cruz, Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval, called for Bolivian Catholics to defend their faith he also called on President Morales to note the difference between a lay State and a secular State that is hostile to religions. [the Catholic Church will defend] the universal right to profess a religion. This is unrenounceable and non-negotiable. This is the basis for helping to form a family that is much more united in the cause of the kingdom of justice and peace and to build a country that is not in constant turmoil. Bishop Jesus Juarez of El Alto accused the Morales government of using double-speak in its educational policies. After the Bishops statements Morales stressed that religion courses would not be eliminated from public schools.

National Educational Congress walk out

In July 10-15, 2006 in Sucre, Bolivia during a meeting of the National Educational Congress delegates from the Bishops Conference of Bolivia walked out claiming it had become political and exclusive the government is seeking to impose its new education law, which reflects an attitude that prevents dialogue about certain aspects of the future of education in Bolivia. Education Minister Felix Patzi spoke with several Bishops in a late-night meeting and pledged to uphold religious instruction in schools and respect the Church-State agreement, saying We recognize the contribution of the Church in the area of education, technical formation, and other areas. Religious subject matter will respect the diversity of religions and that is something we share with the Church, everyone has the right to practice the diversity of other religions, there was never any disagreement on that. Bishop Jesus Juarez of El Alto, who together with Auxiliary Bishop Luis Sainz of Cochabomba, said that not only do parochial schools have a fundamental right to offer instruction according to their own confession but that in state schools the parents should be able to choose which type of religious instruction their children will receive. Bishop Sainz demanded the Morales government clarify and come up with a consensus about the concept of secular education so that there are no longer any doubts. At the end of its conference the National Educational Congress led by Patzi approved a resolution saying, Education in Bolivia is secular and pluralistic because it respects the spirituality of each culture and freedom of belief, it promotes its own values, and rejects every type of dogmatisms. They called for the "curricula [to] be adapted in accord with the diverse beliefs of the country". While before Patzi had stated that the policy would only go into effect after its consideration by the Bolivian Parliament, after the Educational Congress approved the measure he declared that its conclusions "were binding and would be implemented immediately." This drew another wave of protests from Bolivian Catholics who demanded Patzi's resignation.

Archbishop Tito Solari described the Morales government's actions at the event as operating in a Communist fashion, the government imposed its ideology without any room for dialogue. After the Bishops delegates had left those remaining approved the policy to expand the scope of the religious classes. Auxiliary Bishop Estanislao Dowlaszewicz of Santa Cruz characterized the results by saying Today some people live as if they were allergic to religion or the Church [depicting it as] a danger for the future of the country[they are trying to] remove not only religion from the classroom, but God as well. Archbishop Edmundo Abastoflor of La Paz made comments believed to be in response to the education question saying at a commemoration of Bolivian independence. In front of the attending Bolivian President Evo Morales, the archbishop declared, It is crazy to think that God doesnt exist or that we can forget about Him. No matter how important we might be in this world, there is someone who is more so than us.

Leading Protestant responds

In late July, 2006 Protestant theologian, Matias Preisweik, of the Ecumenical Higher Institute endorsed the new policy at a forum called The State, Religion, and the New Political Constitution. He said in this moment of re-appreciation of things Andean, is there not the dream of having a country ruled by the values of its own ancestral and holistic religiosity? He critiqued the Catholic Church saying it is recognized as the tutelary institution, like the Armed Forces, but in religious matters[and] it portrays itself as a superior force that intercedes for Bolivians before the Kingdom of God. He called for a greater separation of Church and State and cited the difficulties of those calling for legalizing abortion on demand as an example of Catholicism imposing its views.

Responding to Preisweik's comments Archbishop Edmundo Abastoflor of La Paz said that the Church does not exercise or hold any political power and that her members live the vocation of service through educational and social works, in benefit of those in need.

Escalating rhetoric

On July 23, 2006 Bolivia's Cardinal Julio Terrazas told Catholics they needed to stop being "passive" and defend the faith. He warned them that Great wars began with small theories ... with this discourse of hate, rancor, of unforgiveness. Patzi then came out against the Catholic hierarchy stating, "They are saying we are going to destroy the Church and its beliefs. How untrue! Excellencies, do not lie to the people, give them the whole truth, the hard truth. The truth does not destroy. Hypocrisy sooner or later will become visible. By July 25, 2006 Catholic organizations had led street marches in cities including Santa Cruz and Tarija. After these protests Patzi went further in his claims, saying "The Church is now showing her true face. The Church is now on the side of the oligarchy, because for 514 years the Church has been at the service of the oligarchy and the rich. Nobody can deny it." Morales then came out in support of Patzi accusing the bishops of acting as if this were the Inquisition. He claimed that the bishops were still seeking a certain vestige of power. Morales explained his comments to reporters, saying "I want to ask the (church) hierarchies that they understand freedom of religion and beliefs in our country. It's not possible to impose their views. [I am] worried by the behavior of some Catholic Church leaders who are acting like in times of the Inquisition."

Jorge Quiroga

In late July, 2006 Former Bolivian president, Jorge Quiroga (who lost the 2005 election to Evo Morales), criticized the remarks of President Morales which compared the actions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Bolivia with the Inquisition. Quiroga said that such rhetoric should be avoided because it only brings negative consequences. He declared he would champion the opposition against the government policies on religious classes, saying Religion is an issue that should not be politicized. What we have clearly said (as the opposition) is that the teaching of religion be respected and we are going to defend it

Morales' reversal

The calls by the Catholic hierarchy to resist Morales policy against sectarian religious classes in state schools caused a dip in his popularity. In mid-July 2006 the newspaper La Razon did a survey of 1,009 Bolivians living in the country's four major cities. The survey showed Morales with an approval rating of 68 percent, down from 75 percent in June. It also found that 83 percent of Bolivians surveyed have a favorable opinion of the Catholic church.

On July 30, 2006, after a 2 1/2 hour conference with Cardinal Julio Terrazas, Morales in the city of Cochabamba, ended the dispute by reversing his stance and backing away from the proposal. The Associated Press reported that in a joint statement that mentioned religious diversity but made no provision for broadening the scope of the solely Catholic curriculum taught in Bolivia's schools, both men said The government and the Catholic church agree to preserve the course on religion, respecting the existing religious diversity in the country.

Confederation of Inner City Education Workers of Bolivia

In September of 2006, the Confederation of Inner City Education Workers of Bolivia in a proposal balled Rescuing the Homeland called for a law that would eliminate all religious instruction in state schools including the 200 state-funded covenant schools which are administered by the Catholic Church. The proposal said Education should be secular, if we want it to be scientific. The Catholic Church "warned that all of the advances made by the Church could be lost" if the State takes over the covenant schools and rallied to oppose any such proposals.

Demonstrations led by Bishops

In August 2006, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Oruro, Cristobal Bialasik led thousands of Catholic students and parents through the city's streets demanding that the Morales government leave sectarian Catholic classes in the state schools. They also insisted that the government quash any suggestions toward amending the Bolivian Constitutions official recognition of Roman Catholicism. The Bolivian Constitution (at article three) says, The State recognizes and sustains the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman religion. It guarantees the public exercise of all other faiths. The relations with the Catholic Church shall be governed by concordats and agreements between the Bolivian State and the Holy See. Bishop Bialasik stated that peace and unity will only come to Bolivia if we respect our faith, if we respect God[and learn] to live the values that He teaches us. Auxiliary Bishop Luis Saenz of Cochabamba called on Catholics to protest knowing that Bolivia is a country of one people devoted to the one true God and his Blessed Mother. Mary, under her different titles, wants all Bolivians to be united. [Let us pray that] God will illumine the darkness in order to extinguish lies and deceitbecause they want to silence us. Gods message is free. God gives us the strength to guide our people. The Catholic Church shall not be enslaved. She is not a slave to the government because she is not a political party. Fear not, Bolivia, because the Church is born of God.

Catholic view on Constitutional reform

On January 18, 2007 Fr. Freddy del Villar, Vicar General of the Coroicu Diocese in Bolivia, said that the Catholic Church remains vigilant concerning the Socialist Morales government. He said they are still reserving judgement on the upcoming revision to the Bolivian constitution. He said, The Church is worried, but at the same time optimistic about the new constitution the Morales government is preparing. Obviously, the party of Evo Morales is socialist: For example, it says it wants to have a non-confessional education, or that religion is not important. But let us see what comes out of the new constitution when it will be finished in August. He declared that with factions in Bolivia seemingly attempting to disintegrate Bolivia, The Church helps to maintain unity in the country.

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