The pastor of Holy Cross parish in the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, Father Raúl Arrázola, denounced the violent intrusion of a group of policemen into his church on Sunday, Jan. 1.

In a statement to the Bolivian newspaper El Deber, Arrázola said that a group of police officers “violated private property” and “the right of asylum that churches have and desecrated it” by forcefully entering the church to arrest people who took refuge inside.

Demonstrations were taking place in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra by citizens protesting the arrest of the governor of the Department of Santa Cruz (similar to a province), Luis Fernando Camacho, who is accused of participating in the massive protests of 2019 that ended with President Evo Morales resigning from office and fleeing to Mexico and then to Argentina, where both countries granted him political asylum.

The ex-president returned to Bolivia a year later on the day after the current president, Luis Arce, was sworn into office. Arce is a member of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, founded and led by Morales, and considers the 2019 protests to have been a coup d’état.

Arrázola explained that around 2 a.m. Sunday, young “men and women from all social groups” jumped over the fence that surrounds Holy Cross church and took refuge inside.”

According to El Deber, these people “had gathered hours before in the vicinity of El Cristo (the emblematic Christ the Redeemer Monument) to hold a peaceful vigil to demand the release of the governor, who since Dec. 30 has been in preventive detention in the maximum security prison of Chonchocoro.”

Arrázola told El Deber that emotions were running high on both sides between the police and the demonstrators and that the young people were considerably angered by the police taking over the area around the El Cristo monument, which is symbolic of the city.

“The gathering ended in violent clashes with the police, with a toll of more than 40 arrested, hundreds injured, and burned vehicles,” the newspaper reported.

The monument is a few blocks from Holy Cross church, where a number of demonstrators sought refuge.

A group of policemen then stormed the church. The Catholic priest charged that the officers “did not respect what people look for in a church: asylum, refuge.”

In addition, El Deber said the police used tear gas and that expended rubber bullet cartridges were found.

In a Dec. 29 statement posted on Twitter, the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference said that the “abduction of Camacho is one more attack, among other affronts, directed at the population of Santa Cruz, which has legitimately chosen him to guide the lot of the department in this period.”

The bishops maintained that there was no coup d’état but in reality what happened was “a pacific uprising of the population of Santa Cruz in face of evident election fraud in the October 2019 elections by the government” as attested by independent international observers, including the Organization of American States.

The conference called on state agencies “to strictly adhere to and comply with the Political Constitution of the State and respect for the autonomy and freedom of action of the other branches of the State, particularly the administration of justice, battered on several occasions.”

“Opposition, dissent, and freedom of thought and expression are part of the exercise of democracy, the foundation of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. [The bishops call for] respect for life, dignity, and the human rights of all citizens, including those accused of breaking the law, in the effective application of constitutional guarantees and due process. [We especially ask] the forces of order and the police to not resort to violent repression that causes more conflict,” the prelates wrote.