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Diplomacy in Action

Colombia


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.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. There is no state religion; however, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status. Paramilitaries sometimes target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla movements regularly targeted representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons. Guerrillas killed, kidnaped, and extorted money from members of these groups, as well as inhibiting free religious expression.

Relations between various faiths are generally amicable, although some indigenous leaders reportedly were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

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 751,680 square miles, and its population is an estimated 39,686,000. Although no official data are available, an April 2001 poll commissioned by El Tiempo newspaper indicated that the country's population is 81 percent Catholic. Of the remaining respondents, 10 percent were non-Catholic Christians, 3.5 percent were evangelical Christians, 1.9 percent professed no religion, 1.4 percent belonged to other religions, 1.3 percent were members of Jehovah's Witnesses, 0.1 percent belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and 0.1 percent were Seventh-Day Adventists. According to the same poll, 60 percent of the respondents said that they do not practice their faith actively. Other religious faiths/movements include Jews, Muslims, animists, and adherents of various syncretistic beliefs. Agnostics and atheists also are present in the country.

Adherents of some religions are concentrated in specific geographic regions. For example, the vast majority of practitioners of a syncretistic religion that blends Roman Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians of Choco department. Jews are concentrated in the major cities, Muslims are concentrated on the Caribbean coast, and adherents of indigenous animistic religions generally are found in remote, rural areas.

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 law states that there is no official or state church or religion but adds that the State "is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians' religious sentiment." Some observers have interpreted this to mean that the State unofficially sanctions a privileged position for the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholicism was the country's official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution. A Concordat between the Vatican and the Government remains active, although some of the articles have been excluded due to constitutional provisions on freedom of religion. A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to religious characterizations of the country.

The law on freedom of religion provides a mechanism for religions to obtain the status of recognized legal entities. The Government extends two different kinds of recognition to religions: recognition of the church as a legal entity (personeria juridica) and special public recognition. The Ministry of Interior regularly grants the former type of recognition. The only legal requirement is submission of a formal request and basic organizational information. Additionally, any foreign religious faith that wishes to establish a presence in the country must document official recognition by authorities from its home country. The Ministry of Interior may reject any requests that do not comply fully with these established requirements or that violate fundamental constitutional rights.

Accession to the 1997 public law agreement between the State and non-Roman Catholic religious entities is required for any religious group that wishes to minister to its adherents through any public institution, such as public hospitals or prisons, or to perform marriages that are recognized by the State. When considering granting accession to the 1997 agreement, the Government takes into account the number of adherents of the religious group, the degree of popular acceptance the group enjoys within society, and other factors deemed relevant, such as the content of the group's statutes and required behavioral norms. A total of 12 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches have received this special status; however, these churches report that some local authorities have failed to comply with the accord. More than 40 churches have requested accession to a new public law agreement with the Government, which, the churches propose, would have lower standards for recognition than the 1997 agreement. However, no progress was made towards a new agreement during the period covered by this report. No non-Christian religion currently is a signatory to the 1997 public law agreement. Some prominent non-Christian religious groups, such as the Jewish community, have not requested state religious recognition.

Foreign missionaries require a special visa, which is valid for a maximum of 2 years. The Ministry of Foreign Relations may issue visas to foreign missionaries or members of a foreign religion or denomination, provided that the religion or denomination has received special public recognition. Applicants are required to have a certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior confirming that the religious institution is registered with the Ministry, a certificate issued by the religious institution confirming the applicant's membership in that institution and explaining the purpose of the proposed travel, and proof of economic solvency. The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided that it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands.

The Constitution provides parents with the right to choose the type of education their children receive, including religious education. It also states that no one shall be obliged to receive religious education of any type in public schools. The Roman Catholic Church and religious groups that have acceded to the 1997 public law agreement with the State may provide religious instruction in public schools. (No non-Christian religion currently is a signatory to the 1997 public law agreement.) Religions without this special recognition may establish private parochial schools, provided that they comply with Education Ministry requirements. For example, the Jewish community operates its own schools.

The Catholic Church has a unique agreement with the Government to provide schools to rural areas that have no state-run schools. These schools are also tax exempt.

In April 2001, in response to a writ of appeal filed by an evangelical student, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary ruled that the Colombian Institute for Higher Education, which administers the country's college aptitude examinations, is required to provide alternate examination dates for evangelicals whose beliefs preclude taking examinations on Sunday.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Although the 1991 Constitution mandated the separation of the Catholic Church from the State, the Church retains a de facto privileged status. According to military regulations, only Roman Catholic priests may serve as chaplains. Participation in the 1997 public law agreement is required for non-Catholic groups in order to minister to soldiers, public hospital patients, and prisoners, and to provide religious instruction in public schools. The State only recognizes marriages celebrated by non-Roman Catholic churches that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. A total of 12 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches have received this special status. Some signatories to the public law agreement have complained of discrimination at the local level, such as refusals by municipal authorities to recognize marriages performed by these churches. However, two of these churches now are performing legally recognized marriages, and others expect to be granted recognition when the Ministry of Interior revises its implementing regulations for the public law agreement.

All legally recognized churches, seminaries, monasteries, and convents are exempt from national and local taxes. Local governments also may exempt from taxes religiously affiliated organizations such as schools and libraries. However, in practice, local governments often exempt only organizations that are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Christian Union Movement (MUC), an association of non-Catholic Christian churches, only 10 municipalities currently exempt non-Catholic churches from taxes.

Faced with threats by paramilitaries or guerrillas, many evangelical preachers were forced to refrain from publicly discussing the country's internal conflict. The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church also reported that paramilitaries, the ELN, and the FARC sometimes issued death threats against rural priests for speaking out against them.

The FARC has placed religious restrictions on persons within the "despeje," the demilitarized zone established in November 1998 in order to facilitate a Government-FARC dialog leading to formal peace talks. During the period covered by this report, the FARC guerilla movement continued to compel Roman Catholic and evangelical churches to pay "war taxes" levied on many organizations in the despeje and also imposed elsewhere in the country.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Although guerrillas initially were suspected in the April 2000 massacre of 2 evangelical pastors and 12 other persons in Hato Nuevo, Bolivar, a Marine lieutenant and 6 Marine infantrymen are currently under arrest for homicide in this case. According to civilian investigators, the Marines were engaged in combat with the guerrillas and killed the two pastors, whom they had mistaken for guerrillas. They then attempted to hide their error by dressing the two bodies in guerrilla clothing. The other twelve dead are considered guerrilla combat casualties.

In April 1999, the army arrested Colonel Jorge Plazas Acevedo, the chief of intelligence for the army's 13th Brigade, for allegedly heading a gang believed responsible for the kidnaping and killing of several Jewish industrialists, including Benjamin Khoudari, who was killed in October 1998. In July 1999, the army retired Plazas. On April 1, 2000, the Attorney General's office publicly stated that it had found insufficient evidence to bring disciplinary charges against Plazas and asked the Prosecutor General's office to drop its criminal investigation. However, the Prosecutor General's office pursued the case. At the end of the period covered by this report, Colonel Plazas and one civilian paramilitary were on trial in a Bogota court. Two other civilian suspects confessed and are serving sentences. Prosecutors have ordered the capture of several other civilians in the case, who remain at large.

Paramilitaries sometimes target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla movements regularly target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons, and killed, kidnaped, and extorted money from members of these churches, as well as inhibiting free religious expression. In August 2000, the human rights unit of the Prosecutor General's Office reported that it had 37 open cases of religiously motivated crimes.

The Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church reported that, from 1987 to 2000, illegal armed groups killed 15 Catholic priests (including 1 bishop) and 5 Protestant pastors. Of these 20 killings, 14 were attributed to the FARC, 4 to the ELN, and 1 to the People's Liberation Army (EPL, a small guerrilla group). According to the MUC, 30 evangelical pastors have been killed in the last 2 years, and more than 50 pastors have been killed in the last 8 years. FARC members were believed responsible for a majority of the killings. The MUC reported an estimated 58 FARC killings of members and pastors between January 1999 and July 2001.

In May 2001, one suspect was charged with the November 1999 killings of Roman Catholic priest Jorge Luis Maza and Spanish aid worker Inigu Egiluz in Choco department. The suspect is expected to stand trial in Quibdo, Choco department. Security forces had arrested nine members of a paramilitary group in connection with the crime.

There was no progress expected in the August 1999 killings of United Pentecostal Church of Colombia preachers Jose Honorio Trivino and Miguel Antonio Ospina.

In May 1999, members of the EPL killed Catholic priest Pedro Leon Camacho in Cachira, Norte de Santander, after he had criticized publicly the guerrilla group's abuses of the civilian population. One suspect in the case was cleared of all charges and released. A second suspect, already under arrest for an unrelated crime, has been charged as an accessory to kidnaping for extortion. However, the authorities have not charged anyone with homicide.

At year's end, the authorities had not yet captured two members of the FARC's 32nd Front--Arley Leal and Milton de Jesus Tonal Redondo ("Joaquin Gomez" or "Usurriaga"), head of the FARC's southern bloc--who were indicted in the 1998 killing of Father Alcides Jimenez in Putumayo. Jimenez was shot 18 times as he gave a sermon in a Catholic church hours after he led a public rally for peace.

On March 11, 2001, unknown persons killed Protestant pastor Onofre Hernandez Benitez as he came out of the Pan-American Church of Arauca. It remains unclear to what extent, if any, the killing was related to religion.

On March 27, 2000, unidentified persons killed Roman Catholic priest Hugo Duque Hernandez at Supia, Caldas department. The case was under investigation at the end of the period covered by this report.

Despite increased pressure by the Government on the FARC to account for three American missionaries from the New Tribes Mission, who were kidnaped by FARC guerrillas in January 1993, their whereabouts and condition remained unknown.

According to the president of the MUC, there was an increase in the number of kidnapings for extortion during the period covered by this report.

In February 2001, evangelical pastor and radio network president Enrique Gomez was kidnaped by unknown persons in Apulo, a small town southwest of Bogota. Gomez reportedly is being held by the FARC for ransom, but his whereabouts and condition were unknown as of June 2001.

A report by the Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church, published in 2000, stated that Roman Catholic churches in Huila, Tolima, Cauca, and Antioquia departments were destroyed through indiscriminate use of force by guerrillas during attacks on towns and police stations.

As of June 2000, the MUC had reported that the FARC had forced the closure of over 300 evangelical churches in Meta, Guajira, Tolima, Vaupes, Guainia, Guaviare, Vichada, Casanare, and Arauca departments. The MUC claims that as of May 2001, 120 more churches had been closed in the southwestern part of the country, and that the FARC in many cases forced the closure of rural evangelical schools. The group also reported that guerrillas continued to attack rural evangelical Christians and their churches in the mistaken belief that the churches were fronts for U.S. Government activities.

In January 2001, representatives of various Christian and evangelical churches reported that the FARC harassed congregation members for refusing to participate in coca cultivation in Meta and Caqueta departments.

Some indigenous groups with distinct animistic or syncretistic religious beliefs are targeted regularly for attack by guerrilla or paramilitary groups. However, these attacks generally are motivated by political differences (whether real or perceived) or by questions of land ownership, rather than by religious differences.

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 various faiths are generally amicable. The Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical churches reported that some indigenous leaders were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

Jewish community leaders estimated that as many as one-third of the country's small Jewish community had fled the country at the end of 2000. The principal causes for this emigration included a number of kidnapings, assaults, and murders affecting Jewish business leaders, as well as economic problems resulting from the country's recession.

There was no reported progress in investigation of the April 2000 bombings of three Mormon temples in Cali, in an attack that appeared intended to target U.S. interests rather than the Mormon faith in particular.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains regular contact with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and other religions, and discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. 



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