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Colombia


International Religious Freedom Report 2004
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 is no state religion; however, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status.

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 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) regularly targeted religious leaders and practitioners, killing, kidnapping, extorting, and inhibiting free religious expression. Terrorist organizations generally targeted religious leaders and practitioners for political, rather than religious, reasons; guerrillas of these two organizations committed the vast majority of these abuses. Paramilitaries, including the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), occasionally targeted representatives and members of religious organizations.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom, although some indigenous leaders reportedly were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 439,735 square miles, and its population is estimated at 42 million. Although the Government does not keep official statistics on religious affiliation, a 2001 poll commissioned by the country's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, indicated that the population is 81 percent Roman Catholic. Ten percent identified themselves as nonevangelical Christians and 3.5 percent as Evangelicals. Another 1.9 percent professed no religious beliefs. An estimated 60 percent of respondents to the poll reported that they do not practice their faith actively.

According to the Colombian Evangelical Council of Churches (CEDECOL), there are 5 to 6 million evangelical Christians. The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church estimates that 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. According to data provided by their respective national headquarters, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah's Witnesses have 180,000, 130,000, and 110,000 members respectively, totaling approximately 1 percent of the population. Other religious faiths and movements with a significant number of adherents include Judaism, estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000, Islam, animism, and various syncretistic belief systems.

Adherents of some religions are concentrated in specific geographic regions. For example, the vast majority of practitioners of syncretistic beliefs that blend Roman Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians residing in the western department of Choco. Jews are concentrated in major cities, Muslims on the Caribbean coast, and adherents of indigenous animistic religions in remote, rural areas. A small Taoist commune exists in a mountainous rural region of Santander Department.

Jewish leaders estimate that as many as one-third of their community had emigrated by the end of 2000. The principal cause was economic hardship caused by the country's recession, which resulted in increased violence against Jewish businesses.

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 strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The Constitution states there is no official church or religion, but it adds that the State "is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians' religious sentiment." Some interpret this to mean that the State unofficially sanctions a privileged position for Roman Catholicism, which was the country's official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution. A 1973 concordat between the Vatican and the Government remains in effect, although some of its articles are now unenforceable because of constitutional provisions on freedom of religion. A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.

The Government extends two different kinds of recognition to religious organizations: recognition as a legal entity (personeria juridica) and special public recognition as a religious entity. Although the application process is often lengthy, the Ministry of Interior and Justice readily grants the former recognition; the only legal requirements are submission of a formal request and basic organizational information. In addition any foreign religious group that wishes to establish a presence must document official recognition by authorities in its home country. The Ministry of Interior and Justice may reject requests that do not comply fully with established requirements or that violate fundamental constitutional rights.

Since 1995 the Ministry of Interior and Justice has approved 767 of the approximately 2,300 applications for special public recognition as a religious entity that it received; an estimated 90 percent of the approvals were for evangelical churches. In cases in which individual churches or schools affiliated with a nationally registered church applied separately for special public recognition, the Government granted those organizations affiliate or associate status. More than 40 churches have asked the Government to sponsor legislation establishing less exacting standards for special public recognition and formally codifying religious freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. In response to a Constitutional Court decision, the Human Rights Ombudsman submitted draft legislation to Congress during the period covered by this report. In addition to implementing less exacting standards for special public recognition and formally codifying tax exempt status for non-Roman Catholic churches, the draft legislation calls for limits on the noise levels of worship services and restrictions on the condemnation of homosexuality from the pulpit, while granting municipal governments the authority to close churches that do not comply. Some evangelical churches believe the latter restrictions limit their freedom of religious expression. Congress did not approve the legislation during the period covered by this report.

Accession to a 1997 public law agreement between the State and non-Roman Catholic religions or denominations is required for such organizations to minister to their adherents in public institutions such as hospitals or prisons, to provide chaplaincy services and religious instruction in public schools, and to perform marriages recognized by the State. When deciding whether to grant accession to the 1997 agreement, the Government considers a religion's total membership, its degree of popular acceptance within society, and other relevant factors, such as the content of the organization's statutes and its required behavioral norms. As of the end of the period covered by this report, 13 non-Roman Catholic churches had been granted accession. No non-Christian religious group is a signatory to the 1997 public law agreement. Some prominent non-Christian religious groups, such as the Jewish community, have not sought to accede to the 1997 public law. Many churches that are signatories report that some local authorities have failed to comply with the accord. The Ministry of Interior and Justice has stated that it reprimands local authorities when complaints of such noncompliance are received.

The Ministry of Foreign Relations issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious administrators of denominations that have received special public recognition. Foreign missionaries are required to possess a special visa that is valid for a maximum of two years. Applicants must have a certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior and Justice confirming that the religion is registered with the Ministry, a certificate issued by the religious organization itself confirming the applicant's membership and explaining the purpose of the proposed sojourn, and proof of economic means. Some evangelical missionaries reported experiencing difficulties obtaining visas because some government officials do not recognize their churches as legitimate. The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands.

The Constitution recognizes parents' right to choose the type of education their children receive, including religious instruction. It also states that no student shall be forced to receive religious education in public schools. However, the Roman Catholic Church and religious groups that have acceded to the 1997 public law agreement may provide religious instruction in public schools to students who wish to receive it. Religious groups that have not acceded to the public law agreement may establish parochial schools, provided that they comply with Ministry of Education requirements. For example, the Jewish community operates its own schools.

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

In April 2001, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary ruled that the Colombian Institute of Higher Education, which administers the country's college entrance examination, must provide alternate examination dates for Evangelicals whose beliefs preclude them from taking examinations on Sunday. In May 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that university instructors may not force students to reveal their religious beliefs or require them to take courses that might obligate them to do so.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Although the 1991 Constitution mandated the separation of Church and State, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status. Accession to the 1997 public law agreement is required for non-Catholic groups to minister to soldiers, public hospital patients, and prisoners, and to provide religious instruction in public schools. The State only recognizes religious marriages celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church and the 13 non-Roman Catholic churches that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. Members of churches that are not signatories to that agreement must first marry in a civil ceremony. Some signatories to the agreement have complained of discrimination at the local level, such as refusals by municipal authorities to recognize marriages performed by these churches. The Ministry of Interior and Justice does not have the authority to recognize a marriage; however, it has the power to investigate such claims of discrimination and to reprimand local authorities.

All legally recognized churches, seminaries, monasteries, and convents are exempt from national and local taxes and customs duties. However, some Protestant churches reported that municipal governments required them to pay property and other local taxes. The Ministry of Interior and Justice states that it reprimands local authorities when it receives such complaints. Local governments may exempt religiously affiliated organizations such as schools and libraries. However, in practice local governments often exempt only organizations affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Christian Union Movement, an association of evangelical Christian churches, only 10 municipalities exempt non-Catholic churches from local taxes.

City planning restricts the number of churches in residential areas. Due to its historical presence, the Roman Catholic Church frequently has churches that are many centuries old in prime locations, predate zoning requirements, and therefore are exempted. Protestant denominations often are forced to locate their churches in commercial and industrial zones.

A small Taoist commune exists in a mountainous rural region of Santander Department. Through its web site, the community has asserted that it is harassed by government security forces. Government officials claim to have received reports that the commune holds residents against their will. The number of commune residents is unknown, although it is accepted widely that many are foreigners. The community's insularity and isolation in a region with a significant guerrilla presence make it difficult to gather accurate information.

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ELN (National Liberation Army), and AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) have been designated foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. Secretary of State, under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Terrorist organizations generally targeted religious leaders and practitioners for political or financial, rather than religious, reasons. Guerrilla groups were responsible for the vast majority of such attacks and threats; the FARC and ELN regularly target religious leaders and practitioners, killing, kidnapping, extorting, and inhibiting free religious expression. The Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor General's Office reported that it was investigating the murders of 31 members of the clergy believed to have been killed because they were outspoken critics of terrorist organizations. Paramilitaries occasionally targeted representatives and members of religious organizations.

Religious leaders generally chose not to seek government protection because of their pacifist beliefs and fear of retribution from terrorist groups.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that terrorist groups killed at least 40 Catholic priests (including a bishop and an archbishop) between 1987 and 2003. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that terrorist groups killed seven priests in 2003. Nearly all these killings were attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC. According to the Colombian Evangelical Council of Churches (CEDECOL), at least 115 evangelical church leaders have been killed in the past 3 years. Colombian nongovernmental organization (NGO) Justapaz reported that 40 evangelical church leaders were assassinated in 2003. Roman Catholic and Protestant church leaders state that killings of religious leaders in rural communities are generally underreported because of the communities' isolation and a fear of retribution. According to the Christian Union Movement, the FARC is responsible for 90 percent of the murders of Protestant religious leaders. Justapaz and CEDECOL report that evangelical church leaders are targeted nationwide for violence equally by paramilitaries and guerrillas.

In response to the increased risks faced by church members, more than 750 local security fronts made up of citizens who live close to churches have been organized to protect Roman Catholic priests and officials. The National Police designed the program following the assassination of Monsignor Isaias Duarte Cancino in March 2002. This protection plan has not been extended to include other religious groups.

Unknown perpetrators believed to be affiliated with terrorist groups killed a number of religious leaders.

On November 10, 2003, the body of Father Jose Rubin Rodriguez, who had been kidnapped a week earlier by armed guerrillas, was found in Tame, Arauca Department.

On October 29, 2003, the criminal trial of FARC commander John Fredy Jimenez and hired gunman Alexander de Jesus Zapata began. They were accused of committing the March 2002 murder of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cali, Isaias Duarte. The trial was still in progress at the end of the period covered by this report.

In July 2003, the AUC reportedly killed Dario Cardona, an evangelical church leader in Dagua, Valle Department. At the time, paramilitaries alleged that Cardona was a FARC collaborator.

Religious leaders and practitioners were the targets of threats and kidnappings, primarily by guerrilla groups.

For example, on March 22, Father Fajib Alvarez, a priest in Barranquilla, announced that he had received threatening phone calls from a person claiming to be a member of the FARC. He was given 24 hours to leave the area. Alvarez stated that this was the third time in seven years that he had received this kind of threat.

On March 19, Father Cesar Pena, a parish priest in a community outside of Valdivia, Antioquia Department, was kidnapped by alleged FARC guerillas. He was still missing at the end of the period covered by this report.

On February 19, Father Ramon Rodriguez, a parish priest in Paniquita, Cauca Department, was attacked by alleged guerillas, who stole his vehicle. He suffered severe leg injuries.

On February 14, the FARC released Father Carlos Enrique Salazar, who was taken hostage at a roadblock near Almaguer, Cauca Department hours earlier as part of a FARC attempt to carry out a mass kidnapping. Salazar had publicly pressed for the release of kidnapping victims.

On September 20, 2003, a group of armed men kidnapped Eveiro Pechene, a leader of the Christian Alliance Church, and Arvey Velarde, a leader of the World Missionary Movement, along with four others in Cajibio, Cauca Department. All six are still missing.

In 2003 the Presidential Program for Human Rights registered three kidnappings of Roman Catholic clergy. Justapaz reported five kidnappings of evangelical church leaders the same year.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that 63 Catholic churches have been seriously damaged or destroyed in the last decade, including 5 churches since January 2003. Roman Catholic churches generally are not attacked intentionally, but often they are affected by guerrilla attacks on police stations and mayors' offices located nearby.

According to the Christian Union Movement, advances by Colombian security forces against the FARC have resulted in the re-opening of approximately 350 of the more than 450 evangelical churches closed as of August 2002. However, guerrillas and paramilitaries continue to attack rural evangelical churches and schools because they suspect the churches are fronts for U.S. Government activities. Mormon church leaders and facilities remain under threat for the same reason.

Due to threats from guerrillas or, frequently, paramilitaries, many religious authorities were forced to refrain from publicly discussing the country's internal conflict. Illegal armed groups, especially the FARC, threatened or attacked religious officials for opposing the forced recruitment of minors, promoting human rights, assisting internally displaced persons, and discouraging coca cultivation. The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church also reported that paramilitaries and guerrillas issued death threats against rural priests who spoke out against them. In response to such threats, some religious leaders have relocated to other communities.

Guerrillas or paramilitaries harassed some indigenous groups that practice animistic or syncretistic religions. However, such harassment appeared generally motivated by political or economic differences (whether real or perceived), or by questions of land ownership, rather than by religious concerns.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical churches reported that some indigenous leaders were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

There were isolated reports of anti-Semitism, including graffiti painted on exterior walls of synagogues and anti-Semitic statements in pamphlets published by small xenophobic organizations.

A number of faith-based NGOs promote human rights, social and economic development, and a negotiated settlement to the country's armed conflict. The most influential of these organizations either are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church or were founded by Catholic Church officials. The Catholic Church continues to be the only institutional presence in many rural areas, and it conducts important social work through its Social Pastoral Agency.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy maintains regular communication with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and other religions.



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