The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, with some qualifications; however, 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, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.
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 30,193 square miles and its population is an estimated 2.8 million.
According to a 1998 nationwide survey by the Comptroller General's Office of Statistics and Census, 82 percent of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholic,
10 percent as evangelical, and 3 percent as unaffiliated with any religious group. There are also small but statistically identifiable congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Episcopalians, and other Christians. Many recent Chinese immigrants still practice Buddhism. The country has small but influential Jewish and Muslim communities, and is home to one of the world's seven Baha'i Houses of Worship.
Many religious organizations have foreign religious workers in Panama. For example, as of June 1999, the Southern Baptist Convention had 22 foreign missionaries in Panama, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) had 197.
Foreign missionaries are granted temporary 3-month religious worker visas upon submitting required paperwork, which includes an HIV/AIDS test and a police certificate of good conduct. A 1-year extension customarily is granted with the submission of additional, less onerous, documentation. Foreign religious workers who intend to remain in the country more than 15 months must repeat the entire process. Such additional extensions usually are granted.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for free exercise of all religious beliefs, provided that "Christian morality and public order" are respected; however, despite the qualified nature of this right, the Government generally respects religious freedom in practice.
The Constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as "the religion of the majority of Panamanians" but does not designate the Roman Catholic Church as the official state religion. Roman Catholicism's numerical predominance and "unofficial" recognition by the Constitution generally has not prejudiced other religions. However, Catholicism does enjoy certain state-sanctioned advantages over other faiths. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Panama--but no other religious leader--enjoys privileges and immunities usually reserved for government officials.
The Constitution provides that religious associations have "juridical capacity" and are free to manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by the law, the same as other "juridical persons." The Ministry of Government and Justice grants "juridical personality" through a relatively simple, transparent process that does not appear to prejudice religious institutions. Juridical personality allows a religion to apply for the full array of tax benefits available to nonprofit organizations. There were no reports of cases in which religious organizations were denied juridical personality or the associated tax benefits.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Foreign missionaries are granted temporary 3-month religious worker visas upon submitting required paperwork, which includes an AIDS test and a police certificate of good conduct. A 1-year extension customarily is granted with the submission of additional, less onerous, documentation. Foreign religious workers who intend to remain in the country more than 15 months must repeat the entire process. Such additional extensions usually are granted. Catholic religious workers from outside the country benefit from a streamlined administrative process that grants them 5-year work permits.
The Panamanian General Directorate for Immigration and Naturalization no longer grants religious worker visas or work permits to members of the Unification Church. Officials based their decision on allegedly deceptive religious worker visa applications, as well as certain Unification Church practices (such as mass marriages) that officials believed ran contrary to the constitutional requirement that religious conduct respect Christian morality. The Unification Church has not appealed the decision.
The Constitution dictates that Catholicism be taught in public schools, although parents have the right to exempt their children from religious instruction.
The Constitution disadvantages ministers of religious faiths in general by strictly limiting the type of public offices they may hold. The Constitution prohibits clerics from holding public office, except as related to social assistance, education, or scientific research.
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 among the different, mostly Christian, faiths are generally harmonious. The Roman Catholic Church, despite losing membership through growing defections to evangelical and other Christian churches, generally has not reacted defensively. Similarly, most Protestant groups active in the country are not militantly anti-Catholic. Aggressive evangelical Protestant criticism of "new" religions, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses), is not widespread.
For the past 17 years, mainstream denominations, including the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist Churches, have participated in a successful ecumenical movement directed by the nongovernmental Panamanian Ecumenical Committee. The Committee sponsors interreligious conferences to discuss matters of faith and practice and plans joint liturgical celebrations and charitable projects. In conjunction with the University of Santa Maria la Antigua, the Committee sponsors the Institute for Ecumenicism and Society, which conducts its own conferences and issues ecumenical publications. The Ecumenical Committee is also a member of the Panamanian Civil Society Assembly, an umbrella group of civic organizations that conducts informal governmental oversight and has been the driving force behind ethical pacts on the treatment of women and youth, civil society, responsible journalism, and decentralization.
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. Embassy officials also have met with religious leaders to discuss human rights and the promotion of democracy and civil society.