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Diplomacy in Action


International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom in the period covered by this report. In March 2000, the Government promulgated a law designed to bring other religious entities closer to the legal status enjoyed by the Catholic Church; however, the Catholic Church still retains an privileged position. Absent specific regulations to implement the new law in government institutions, non-Catholic ministers reported that local administrators sometimes impeded their efforts to carry out their ministries in hospitals, prisons, and military units.

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 area of 292,257 square miles and its total population is estimated at approximately 15 million. According to the 1992 census, (the latest official figures available), of the population over the age 14, approximately 77 percent were identified as Roman Catholic. (The census does not take into account religion for persons under age 14.)

The term Evangelical in Chile is used to refer to all non-Catholic Christian churches with the exception of the Orthodox (Greek, Persian, Serbian, Armenian), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. Approximately 90 percent of Evangelicals are Pentecostal. The 1992 census used the terms "Protestant" and "Evangelical" to inquire as to religion, although the terms are often considered interchangeable. Evangelicals totaled 1,198,385 persons, or 12 percent of the population over the age of 14. Those identifying themselves with the term Protestant accounted for 8,259 persons, less than 1 percent of the population. In the census, atheists and those "indifferent" totaled 562,285, or approximately 6 percent of the population over the age of 14. All other religions totaled 409,910 persons, or slightly over 4 percent.

In 1997 spokespersons for Protestant organizations estimated the number of Evangelicals in the country at between 1.8 and 2 million persons. Other estimates are as high as 3 million persons. The active Jewish population is estimated to be around 30,000 persons. The number of Protestants and Evangelicals has increased steadily with each census since 1930, when only 1.5 percent of the population claimed to be Protestant. The relative percentage of Catholics declines with decreases in socioeconomic status. A 1991 survey found that 93.4 percent of high-income respondents indicated they were Catholic; the proportions declined to 75.2 percent in the middle-income group, and to 69 percent among those in the lower-income group. The survey found that 22 percent of persons at the lower-income levels were Protestants. A June 1998 national survey conducted by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) suggested that 43 percent of Evangelicals were converts from another religion; 98 percent of Catholics had been born into that religion.

The CEP study also found that 8 out of 10 citizens believe in the existence of God, while 14 percent were doubtful and only 2 percent declared themselves atheists. Approximately 72 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Catholics, 16 percent identified themselves as Evangelicals, 7 percent stated that they had no religion, 4 percent adhered to other religions, and 1 percent did not respond.

The CEP poll also found that 18 percent of respondents claimed to attend a church or temple at least once a week. A 1995 CEP survey placed this figure at 27 percent. In the 1998 survey, 29 percent stated that they never attended religious services. Thirty-two percent stated that they prayed at least once a day and 15 percent stated that they never prayed.

There are a wide variety of active faiths. In addition to the dominant Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Church, Lutheran Church, Reformed Evangelical Church, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Methodist Church, and the Patriarch of Antioch Orthodox Church are among the Christian denominations present. The Mormons and the Unification Church also are active. Other faiths include Judaism, Islam, and the Baha'i Faith. Members of all major faiths are concentrated in the capital, with Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches also active in other regions of the country. Jewish communities also are located in Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, Valdivia, Temuco, Concepcion, and Iquique (although there is no synagogue in the Iquique).

Foreign missionaries operate freely, and many priests are of foreign origin.

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. Church and state are officially separate. However, the Catholic Church continues to enjoy a privileged position among religions and receives preferential treatment. In addition to Christmas, five Roman Catholic holidays are considered national holidays.

Before the March 2000 adoption of the new law on religion ("ley de culto"), religious faiths and related organizations other than the Roman Catholic Church were required to register with the Ministry of Justice as private, nonprofit foundations, corporations, or religiously affiliated clubs to receive tax-exempt status and the right to collect funds. Groups without such juridical status could worship, but did not enjoy the tax-exempt status, fund collection rights, and other benefits that come with legal recognition. Some 800 religious faiths and related organizations are registered under the old system with the Ministry of Justice. Government refusal to register a religious group, or withdrawal of its legal status, was rare, and generally stemmed from misuse of funds by the group or widespread criminal allegations.

Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church was not governed by the same regulations as other religions; it was not required to register with the Ministry of Justice and enjoyed what amounted to "public right" ("derecho publico") status. Public right status provides that a church cannot lose its juridical standing administratively. Until the new law on religion took effect, the only other church body with this legal status was the Antioch Orthodox Church. Previously, all other religions, and groups affiliated with other religions, only enjoyed "private rights" ("derecho privado"), which allowed for the lifting of status administratively. Approval of the new legislation came only after the law was reworded to make clear that the status historically enjoyed by the Catholic Church would not be affected by the new law.

One of the most important aspects of the new law on religion is that it allows any religion to obtain the legal public right status. Under the new law, the Ministry of Justice may not refuse to accept a registry petition although it can object to the petition within 90 days on the grounds that all legal prerequisites to register have not been satisfied. The petitioner then has 60 days to address objections raised by the Ministry or challenge the Ministry's observations in court. Once a religious entity is registered, the State no longer has the ability to dissolve it by decree. This only may occur through a judicial review initiated by the semiautonomous Council for the Defense of the State (CDE), which is the official entity charged with defense of the State's legal interests.

In addition, the new law allows churches to adopt a charter and by-laws suited to a religious organization rather than a private corporation. Churches may set up affiliates (schools, clubs, sports organizations) without the need to register them as separate, independent corporations. The law also grants other religions the right to have chaplains in public hospitals, prisons, and military units.

Only about 10 religious faiths and related organizations have changed their legal status with the Ministry of Justice by the end of the period covered by this report; another 90 groups are in the process of doing so. Many churches have delayed registering because of the complexities involved in formulating a new charter and by-laws. Many others have hesitated because of the taxes and fees involved in transferring the property from the old legal entity to the new one. Efforts are underway to have the Government grant a one-time waiver of these taxes and fees for the initial reregistration.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The new religion law grants religions other than the Catholic Church the right to have chaplains in public hospitals, prisons, and military units. However, without specific regulations to implement the new law on religion, non-Catholic ministers continue to report that local administrators present difficulties in granting them access to prisons and public hospitals. Catholic priests usually do not face such difficulties. Although there is a perception that the situation is improving, access remains at the discretion of administrators. Public events are frequently marked by the celebration of a Roman Catholic Mass and, if the event is of a military nature, all members of the participating units are obliged to attend. Religious instruction in public schools is almost exclusively Roman Catholic. The military continues to block efforts by non-Catholic faiths to provide military chaplains. Military recruits, whatever their religion, are required at times to attend Catholic events involving their unit. Membership in the Roman Catholic Church is considered beneficial to one's military career.

Schools are required to offer religious education, on an optional basis, twice a week through middle school. It is mandatory to teach the creed requested by parents, although enforcement is sometimes lax. Local school administrations decide how funds will be spent for religious instruction. The result is that instruction is predominantly in the Roman Catholic faith. According to an unconfirmed press report, the Education and Gospel Task Force in San Pedro de la Paz filed a claim charging that the public school discriminated against Protestant students and families by only hiring Catholic teachers. The group claims that the law allows for parents to request instruction for their students by trained Protestant teachers. The group also maintains that the community is 40 to 50 percent Protestant, and that certified Protestant teachers have applied for jobs, but all have been denied.

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 religious communities are generally amicable; however, some discrimination and misunderstandings occur. The new law on religion includes a clause that prohibits religious discrimination.

Ecumenical groups exist, although they often are formed on an ad hoc basis depending on the issue involved. All major faiths continued to participate in a human rights "dialog table" led by the Defense Minister, which concluded its activities and submitted a report to the Government on January 6. In addition to Catholic events, government officials attend major Protestant and Jewish religious and other ceremonies.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

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

U.S. Embassy representatives met with a wide variety of religious leaders, including Santiago's Archbishop and key representatives of Evangelical and Jewish organizations. Informal contact is maintained with representatives and leaders of several other faiths.

As appropriate embassy officials have cooperated on programs such as anti-drug efforts with church-affiliated groups and the B'nai B'rith. 

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