EL ALTO, Bolivia (Reuters) - At a “Witches Market” in the Bolivian city of El Alto, dried llama fetuses said to bring good fortune hang outside tin shack stalls while healers read the future in coca leaves and call on ancient spirits to cure ills.
When Pope Francis visits Bolivia next week, he will discover a nation that cherishes animal sacrifices and pagan worship and where relations between indigenous communities and the Roman Catholic Church have been strained. The country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, has frequently clashed with the church.
“I hope he comes with good intentions and not with the same thinking as in times past,” said Luisa Quispe, 60, a self-described witch in El Alto, a satellite city perched above the capital La Paz.
“We want respect for our culture.”
Francis sets out on Sunday for Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, three of South America’s smallest and most impoverished nations, taking with him a message of solidarity for the downtrodden.
Church leaders in Bolivia are calling the visit “Reconciliation and Renewal”. The Argentina-born pontiff, the first Latin American pope, will seek to heal rifts between the country’s indigenous people and the descendants of its Spanish colonial conquerors, who brought the Catholic faith to Bolivia. Three in every four people in the country of 10.6 million are Catholic.
Quispe’s stall is one of dozens along a dirt track where small stoves burning offerings to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, fill the air with scented smoke and women wearing bowler hats and colorful shawls line up for medicinal cures.
A large white statue of Christ overlooking the urban sprawl towers high at the end of the street.
“The pope is a European god not an Andean god,” said one healer who withheld his name, fearing government reprisals. “It seems absurd the government would spend so much money on the pope’s visit.”
Morales, an Aymara Indian who has been in office since 2006, promised early in his presidency to govern in favor of the indigenous majority, marginalized by the ruling elite and left as poor farmers after Spain colonized the Andean nation.
The former coca farmer called the Catholic Church “an instrument of domination which brings injustice and inequality” in 2008. A year later, Morales backed a constitutional referendum that stripped the Catholic Church of its official status and declared Bolivia a secular state.
Father Jose Fuentes, who is helping organize the pope’s visit, said Morales had stirred animosity toward the Catholic Church. He said the church respected local rites even if they had largely lost relevance when people converted to Christianity.
The pope’s tour is aimed at helping Bolivians overcome their differences, Fuentes said.
“We need a meeting of indigenous people and descendants of the Spanish colonialists, between races, between those in Bolivia and those who have had to leave for the lack of justice,” Fuentes said.
Felix Cardenas, Bolivia’s vice-minister for decolonization and a supporter of the 2009 constitutional changes, acknowledged the reforms had damaged the government’s relations with conservative Catholic leaders.
However, he cited the pope’s concerns for the environment as a potential bridge. “He seems like a Pope who wants to look after Mother Earth,” Cardenas said. “We hope the pope can be a positive example for the ultra conservative elements of the church here.”
Chewing coca would be a strong signal the pope appreciated Bolivia’s indigenous values, Cardenas said, referring to the widespread indigenous custom of chewing the leaves that are a mild stimulant, and the major ingredient of cocaine.
The Vatican said this week the pope would decide for himself whether to chew the leaves in order to ward off altitude sickness when he lands at La Paz.
On the capital’s steep-sloped streets there is little evidence of the underlying tensions between the Church and indigenous people and even the government appears in a conciliatory mood.
Buildings are being spruced up for the pope’s arrival and banners welcoming him loom large across the city, while the government has designated two days of his visit public holidays.
“We’re going to the main road to see him come down from El Alto,” said Janette Sarabia, 27, whose stall at another witches’ market is stacked high with candles shaped as saints and skulls.
Additional reporting by David Mercado; Editing by Richard Lough and Frances Kerry