In what's been labeled an "absurd" move, a judge in Colombia has banned prayer and "fraternal hugs" at the start of Cartagena city council sessions as well as local educational institutions.

The ban on civic prayer – as well as the baffling prohibition against "fraternal hugs" anywhere from businesses to private family life – has generated immense controversy and protests among Christians on the country's coast.

Judge Alejandro Bonilla Aldana's May 10 ruling suspends the first article of a 2007 accord which established prayer at "the beginning of all daily activities in local government entities as a basic approach to recovering the religious principles of the city."

The daily El Colmbiano reported that a lawsuit against the accord was filed by Miguel Ángel Garcés who is connected with the Autonomous University of the Caribbean. Garcés took up the charge against the accord after a similar effort was rejected by the court in 2015.

The ruling by Judge Bonilla also eliminates "giving a fraternal hug at the beginning of activities" not just at the city council, but also in "public and private businesses, educational institutions, police command posts and stations, military battalions, assemblies, the boards of businesses, shopping centers, and taxi stations, trade organizations, associations and in the family."

According to the magistrate,"the custom of prayer cannot be taken as a widespread cultural element and the civil authorities cannot impose its obligatory exercise, disregarding freedom of belief."

Catholic and inter-denominational leaders have largely decried the ruling, with the Archdiocese of Cartagena issuing a statement saying it violates the human rights "of all the Catholics in Colombia."

The daily El Tiempo reported that "massive prayers" are taking place in Cartagena by diverse Christian groups such as the one led by pastor Lida Arias. "No one can prohibit us from praying and giving hugs," Arias said. "This city and this country need more prayer and less absurd laws."

The Colombian coast daily El Heraldo indicated that a number of council members such as  Duvina Torres, Jorge Useche, Erick Piña and Angélica Hodeg have publicly come out against Judge Bonilla's decision.

More in Americas

For their part, the Association of Evangelical Ministers in Bolivar said that "prayer and a fraternal hugs break down the barriers between people and allow us to forgive one another." They encouraged "a peaceful protest of prayer and fraternal hugs be held in every area of Cartagena."

Photo credit: