LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Hoisting a large leather Bible above her head, Bolivia’s new interim president delivered an emphatic message hours after Evo Morales fled under pressure, the end of a nearly 14-year presidency that celebrated the country’s indigenous religious beliefs like never before.
“The Bible has returned to the palace,” bellowed Jeanine Añez as she walked amid a horde of allies and news media cameras into the presidential palace where Morales had jettisoned the Bible from official government ceremonies and replaced it with acts honoring the Andean earth deity called the Pachamama.
The conservative evangelical senator, from a region where people often scoff at Pachamama beliefs, thrust the Bible above her head and flashed a beaming smile.
While Bolivians are deeply divided on Morales’ legacy, his replacement, a lawyer and opposition leader who wants to make the Bible front and center in public life, is reigniting deep-rooted class and racial divisions at a time of great uncertainty in the Andean nation, where 6 in 10 identify as descendants of native peoples.
“It’s the same as 500 years ago when the Spanish came and the first thing they showed the indigenous people was the Bible,” said Jose Saravia, a civil engineer and married father of three children from La Paz. “It seems to me like the same thing is happening again.”
Like many in Bolivia, Saravia is a practicing Catholic who weaves in Pachamama beliefs passed down from this parents and grandparents. About 8 in 10 in Bolivia are Catholic, according to the most recent estimates.
Saravia and his family were among droves of people who came carrying their immaculately dressed baby Jesus dolls to fill a massive Catholic church in La Paz to participate in Three Kings Day masses on Jan. 6. As they slowly left the 18th century church, a Catholic priest splashed their relics with holy water.
Just feet away from the church in a bustling plaza, parishioners stopped to have their baby Jesus dolls blessed by indigenous elders wearing their customary poncho sweaters and wool stocking hats in an act Bolivians believe shows respect for Pachamama and bring blessings in return. The men rang tiny bells as they placed the dolls in incense smoke billowing from small pots full of hot coals and special herbs, many ending the act with a sign of the cross and a kiss of a small cross.
A symbiotic relationship has emerged over time. It allows Catholics and Pachamama believers to maintain both systems, said Mariano Condori Flores, one of the indigenous guides doing the blessings. Flores uses a Catholic cross as part of the Pachamama blessing he gave the baby Jesus dolls.
Condori said the same relationship doesn’t exist with evangelicals, who tend to take a hard line against mixing beliefs and account for about 7% of the population, more than double their size in 1970, according to a self-reported membership figures compiled by the World Christian Database.
“It doesn’t seem like Añez understands that we exist,” Condori said. “She doesn’t talk about the Pachamama, she doesn’t talk about who we are.”
For many upper-class conservatives in the capital of La Paz, and in outlying provinces where people grew tired of Morales’ heavy-handed campaign to increase visibility and prominence of the indigenous religious beliefs, Añez’s reintroduction of the Bible is being celebrated.
“It was a demonstration of grand respect for Bolivian people. We are believers in God,” said Karina Ortiz Justiniano, a psychologist and mother from the province of Beni, where Añez resides. “The government of Evo Morales was way too aggressive, especially for those of us here in the eastern region that don’t believe in the Pachamama.”
Sentiments like that provoke strong reaction from Bolivians who embrace their Incan heritage. They fear that the discrimination they felt under previous presidents of European descent will return to this often overlooked South American country of 11 million people situated between Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.
Morales raised the self-esteem of Bolivians of indigenous roots, allowing them to look the upper class, lighter-skinned Bolivians eye-to-eye, said David Mendoza Salazar, a Bolivian sociologist with expertise in indigenous culture. In Añez, many see a lighter-skinned, upperclass evangelical they don’t feel they can trust, and fear for the future.
“In the memory of the citizenry, the exploitation of the Spaniards is internalized,” said Salazar, from his home on one of the steep hills in La Paz, a city of about 900,000 people that sits at about 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) elevation.
Morales fled Bolivia in November after losing the support of the military and police amid widespread protests over a disputed election.
Añez announced Friday evening she will run for a full term in the May 3 presidential election, despite saying previously she would only serve in the interim to bring stability to the country. Critics say she represents Bolivian archetype that flourished before Morales became the nation’s first indigenous president in 2006.
Indeed, one of the leading presidential candidates for the redo election in May, Luis Fernando Camacho, has built his campaign on bashing Morales and on the idea of restoring the prominence of Catholicism.
Another candidate, Chi Hyun Chung, an evangelical pastor who campaigned against gay marriage and abortion rights on his way to finishing third in the annulled October election, described Pachamama beliefs as paganism and diabolic in an interview last year.
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Source: Religion News Service