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Bolivian Methodists look for calm after turbulence

11/13/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By United Methodist News Service

In the wake of political and social crisis, Methodists in Bolivia are hopeful that country's new interim president will bring stability and change.

Bishop Carlos Intipampa, leader of the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia, conveyed his support and prayers for Carlos D. Mesa, the new president, in a recent pastoral letter; he also called upon the Methodist community to continue to pray for the entire nation.

Mesa is a political moderate and widely respected as a moral leader, according to the Rev. Wilson Boots, a United Methodist missionary who, with his wife, Nora, has been based part-time in Bolivia since 1993. At the moment, there seems to be "a positive view" of his abilities to stabilize the Latin American country, he told United Methodist News Service in a Nov. 12 interview.

The former president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, resigned Oct. 17 after violent clashes between demonstrators and army troops resulted in more than 80 deaths. The widespread protests, which also left more than 400 wounded, underlined the continuing social and political crisis in Bolivia, the bishop reported.

Although indigenous Indian groups, representing Bolivia's poor and the majority of its citizens, initially organized the protests, other groups joined the movement, according to the New York Times.

The Methodist church was involved in joint efforts with the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights to end the violence and bring about reconciliation. Several churches served as centers for those who fasted as part of a nonviolent protest. Three church vehicles were destroyed during the protests.

Clergy and laity donated blood, shared medical supplies with public hospitals and provided pastoral care to the wounded and family members of those who suffered death or injury.

The church also made public statements supporting struggles for a more just society for all Bolivians. "The Bolivian Methodist Church is engaged in community building and nation building," Boots said.

While a proposal for a $5 billion pipeline to export Bolivia's natural gas was a trigger for the protests, underlying anger exists regarding long-time government corruption there, he explained.

The previous president, Boots said, was forced to bring in Mesa as a vice presidential candidate "to give respectability to his government because corruption had reached an extraordinary level." But when Mesa tried to address corruption issues, the president publicly embarrassed him, he added.

Boots considers it a positive sign that Mesa, who has no political party affiliation, was able to bring in a cabinet not related to the party of the former president.

About 60 percent of Bolivia's nearly 8 million citizens are indigenous and Wilson considers this new shift of political power "a watershed moment." The Indian groups want a new constitution and would like to dissolve the current congress and replace it with a popular constituent assembly.

The Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia has 169 congregations and about 8,000 members with 85 percent from the Aymara indigenous group. Intipampa, who grew up in a sheepherding family, is the first Aymara theologian to receive a doctoral degree.

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