Pope Francis received an unlikely gift from Bolivian President Evo Morales on Wednesday: a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle -- the international Communist symbol that represents laborers and peasants.
In video of the exchange, the pope’s reaction to the gift is unclear: He smiles slightly and then shakes his head, finally holding the crucifix briefly before passing it off to a handler. Several audio accounts of the meeting indicate that the pope says in Spanish, “No está bien eso,” which can be translated as “That is not right.”
But a spokesperson for the Vatican clarified later on Thursday that the recordings of the audio exchange are not clear, adding that the Pope more likely expressed something akin to “I didn’t know” rather than “That is not right.”
What didn’t the Pope know? That the crucifix was a replica of one designed by Father Luis Espinal Camps, the Spanish jesuit, human rights activist and missionary who was tortured and assassinated in 1980 by Bolivian paramilitary squads. Pope Francis prayed at the site of his assassination en route from the airport in La Paz to the presidential palace.
“I stopped here to greet you and above all to remember, to remember a brother, our brother, a victim of interests who did not want him to fight for the freedom of Bolivia,” the Pope said at the site, before leading gatherers in prayer.
— David Agren (@el_reportero) July 8, 2015
Morales is a staunchly leftist leader and the first head of Bolivia to come from an indigenous family. He has not been shy in expressing his disdain for the Catholic Church -- and its complicated history of supporting the oppression of indigenous people in Bolivia. Since coming to power in 2006, Morales ushered in a new constitution that declared the Catholic-majority country a secular state.
But Morales has also shown admiration for the Pope, as well, visiting him at the Vatican and greeting him warmly in Bolivia. The two leaders have found common ground in the Pope’s impassioned pleas on behalf of the world’s poor.
Morales’ gift elicited scandalized reactions from all over the world, especially on social media. Spanish Bishop Jose Munilla Aguirre called it “the height of arrogance ... to manipulate God in the service of atheistic ideologies” on Twitter. Others joked about the strange juxtaposition of symbols.
— Jose Ignacio Munilla (@ObispoMunilla) July 9, 2015
(La Paz) Evo Morales gave a gift that was as tasteless as it was blasphemous to the Pope on Wednesday. What is... http://t.co/GlL8J2LoDk
— Tancred (@sedgladium) July 9, 2015
— Patrick O'Sullivan (@patrickuzor) July 9, 2015
Pope Francis met with Morales at the Palace of Government in La Paz as part of an historic eight-day trip to South America.