The gifts Pope Francis received while visiting Bolivia Wednesday included a strange crucifix featuring Jesus nailed to a communist hammer and sickle.
The unusual statue, given to the pontiff by Bolivia’s leftist president Evo Morales, is in fact a great distinction: the trophy for the Luis Espinal award.
Espinal was a Catholic priest and a writer who defended human rights and fought government corruption. He was tortured and killed by paramilitary thugs during Bolivia’s dictatorship in 1980.
The award is given by the Bolivian government to a religious figure who stands up for the poor and marginalized. But Morales, who once said “I’m only Catholic to go to weddings,” surely ought to have recognized the audacity and tackiness of the gift’s appearance. (RELATED: WikiLeaks Hypes Giant Saudi-Vatican Conspiracy, Gives Zero Evidence)
Pope Francis immediately recognized how inappropriate the gift was. Photographs from the exchange show the pope grimacing as soon as the statue was presented. And one news camera faintly captured him murmuring “No está bien eso.”
Or, in simple idiomatic English: “That’s not right.”
Francis joked that his gift to Morales was “much simpler” by comparison. He gave the provocateur president a copy of his recent encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si’.”
The pope’s visit to Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia took him to some of the Western Hemisphere’s highest elevations. The 78-year-old pontiff only has one functioning lung as a result of a childhood infection.
Since Bolivia’s La Paz is the world’s tallest capital at nearly 12,000 feet, he only remained there for four hours. He also combated altitude sickness with coca leaves, which are widespread in the Andes and also serve as the source of cocaine.
Morales rose to power in 2006 as a champion of the Aymara people, an indigenous tribe which has fought for the right to cultivate coca despite efforts by the international “war on drugs” to eradicate the plant. He is Bolivia’s first native president.
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