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Bolivia


International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. Roman Catholicism is the official religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total land area of approximately 425,000 square miles, and its population is estimated at 8.15 million.

The Government did not ask for religious affiliation in the ongoing census. Roman Catholics constitute the majority (estimated at 80 percent) of the population. Protestant Christian denominations are estimated to account for 12 to 15 percent of the population. In the country's last census (1992), 3 percent of the population specifically indicated that they had no religious affiliation, with the remainder not specifying or listing religions with statistically small followings. There are 272 registered religious groups, mostly Protestant; another approximately 130 applications are pending.

Anywhere between 50 and 60 percent of the population identifies itself as indigenous, from Aymara (est. 1.5 million), Quechua (2.4 million), Guarani (77,000), Chiquitano (63,000) or 1 of 20 other smaller groups. The percentage of the population identifying themselves as indigenous is higher in rural areas, and the Roman Catholic Church tends to be weaker in these parts of the country due to both a lack of resources and indigenous cultural resistance. For many individuals, identification with Roman Catholicism coexists with an attachment to traditional beliefs and rituals, with a focus on the "Pachamama" or "Mother Earth" figure, as well as on "Akeko," originally an indigenous god of luck, harvests, and general abundance, whose festival is celebrated widely on January 24. Some indigenous leaders have sought to discard all forms of Christian religion. In 2000 the Government registered 19 religious groups, including 1 traditional indigenous religious group.

Missionary groups include Mennonites, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and many evangelical groups. Most can be characterized as Christian minority religious groups rather than separate religions.

Many church representatives from other countries play a major role in the country. The Mormons have inaugurated a temple/center in Cochabamba for their activities in western South America. There is also a small Jewish community with a synagogue in La Paz, and a few Muslims and a mosque in the eastern city of Santa Cruz. Korean immigrants have their own church in La Paz. The majority of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants have settled in the city of Santa Cruz where they have established communities. There is a university in the city founded by Korean immigrants, which has evangelical/Presbyterian ties. There are Buddhist and Shinto communities, as well as a considerable Baha'i community spread throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. Roman Catholicism predominates, and the Constitution recognizes it as the official religion. The Roman Catholic Church receives support from the State (about 300 priests receive small stipends from the State) and exercises a limited degree of political influence through the Bolivian Bishops' Conference.

In July 2000, President Hugo Banzer Suarez signed a Supreme Decree (similar to an executive order) governing the relationships between religious organizations and the Government, which then entered into force. The new decree replaced a 1985 decree that had been the subject of criticism by Catholic and non-Catholic churches. The new decree reflects input from the churches and, according to the Government, is designed to increase transparency and dialog in church-state relations. For example, under the 1985 decree, evangelical groups had to receive permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship before conducting public gatherings such as outdoor celebrations; the 2000 decree requires only that groups consult civil authorities to address concerns such as traffic. The 2000 decree also requires that the fundraising reports of religions be certified by a notary public. This new requirement is designed to protect churches against allegations of money laundering or receiving money from drug funds.

Non-Catholic religious organizations, including missionary groups, must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship and receive authorization ("personeria juridica") for legal religious representation. The Government is not known to seek out or restrict gatherings of nonregistered religious groups; however, registration is essential for tax, customs, and other legal benefits. The Ministry cannot deny any organization based on its articles of faith; however, the procedure typically requires legal assistance and can be time consuming. The process has led to the abandonment of a number of officially pending applications that require further legal revision.

Religious groups receiving funds from abroad may enter into a framework agreement ("convenio marco") with the Government, lasting 3 years, which permits them to enjoy a judicial standing similar to the standing of nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) and to have tax-free status. Some 20 religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have this framework agreement with the Government.

Only Catholic religious instruction is provided in public schools. It is described as optional, but it is not evident that steps are taken to destigmatize nonparticipation. Non-Catholic instruction is not yet available in public schools for students of other faiths; an alternate course on "ethics" has not yet been implemented. The Constitution prohibits discrimination in employment based on religion, and it does not appear to be common.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government denied religious registration to Hari Krishna in the 1980's, on the grounds of what the Government describes as nonfaith based activities of the group, and has not acted on a new application by that organization initiated in 2000. The Government considers the previous decision to be valid and in force. However, Hari Krishna continues to operate with official standing as an educational organization.

In 1996 a local mission, the Ekklesia Church, protested its investigation by the Government; however, the issue appeared to be more one of adhering to administrative and fiscal norms than a true religious matter. Based on government allegations of misuse, some of the Ekklesia mission's customs privileges as a religious organization were suspended; however, the Ekklesia church remains registered legally as a religious organization.

The Government does not take any steps to promote interfaith understanding. If the President goes officially to Mass, it is traditional for his Cabinet to accompany him, even though political leaders may have different religious beliefs.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the country's diverse religious communities are amicable, as ecumenical dialog between them continues. In June 1999, the Catholic Church announced that it would no longer call neo-Pentecostal and evangelical churches "sects," which increasingly has been viewed as a pejorative term, but would call them instead "religious organizations." As a demonstration of improving Catholic-Protestant relations, a nationwide meeting of Catholics and Protestants was held in May 2000. Similar meetings were held at the departmental level in La Paz and Cochabamba in May and June 2000, and future meetings are planned. In addition, the churches are encouraging interfaith dialog at the grass-roots level between their members.

In June 1999, a meeting was held among Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders in order to initiate an interfaith dialog in the country. The Catholics and Methodists of Cochabamba have collaborated on publications and vigils, and following the Vatican's lead, Catholics and Lutherans in Bolivia now recognize each other's rituals of baptism.

There are no serious rivalries between religious groups, although there were reports of some resentment of missionary groups by Roman Catholics.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights and as an independent issue. The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers meet regularly with religious authorities, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship, principal religious leaders, and the Papal Nuncio. 



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