The additional entry requirements implemented in August for individuals who planned to travel to the country for religious purposes applied to religious travel from any country, but affected the country’s free travel obligations under the Central American 4 Border Control Agreement (CA-4 Agreement). The agreement has been in place for more than 10 years and its signatory countries comprise El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Ministry of Government officials said an increase in evangelical Protestant groups travelling from El Salvador raised suspicion in an area they said was already known for illicit transnational activity. Representatives from the Ministries of Interior and of Foreign Affairs stated authorities’ concerns that criminals and narcotraffickers could use missionary groups as cover to facilitate illicit transnational activities and threaten national sovereignty and security. Religious groups said the restrictions impeded the legal right of citizens of signatory countries to the CA-4 Agreement to cross borders without visas or other permissions. The change restricted religious workers from exercising elements fundamental to their religious practices such as pilgrimage, charity, and missionary work.
In response to the travel restrictions, Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders sought meetings with representatives of the Ministries of Government and Foreign Affairs to establish a dialogue on the policy change. After immigration officials denied entry to several missionaries in early August before the travel requirements were officially circulated, government officials circulated a written explanation of the new requirements.
Many regional and international missionary groups said they cancelled travel plans to the country because they feared they would be unable to obtain permission from the government or would be denied entry upon arrival.
Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated there was selective application of the new travel restrictions and customs processing based on political affiliation and favoritism by ruling party officials. Both groups stated religious leaders received undue scrutiny and faced retaliatory application of laws if they had not pledged their support to the ruling political party in the year’s presidential elections. One evangelical leader also reported that since enactment of the new regulation, his organization stopped all politically sensitive commentary, which he stated had led to quicker travel approvals.
Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders reported cases in which government customs agents retaliated against religious groups for perceived criticism of the ruling party. The leaders reported incidents of customs seizures of imported equipment, delayed import clearance for donated goods, and delayed tax exemptions applicable to religious organizations. Catholic and evangelical leaders stated pro-government religious groups did not experience similar retaliation. They said, however, that there was an overall decrease in such retaliatory practices over the past year, which they attributed to the central government’s unwillingness to further alienate sectors of society during an election year.
Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the government provided or withheld financial support, tax, and utility subsidies for individual churches based on the political affiliation of the church’s clergy. Church leaders reported cases in which church tax exemptions were not honored or were delayed based on political statements made by clergy. They stated that exceptions on imported donations were routinely delayed, sometimes leading to donated perishables reaching their expiration dates and becoming unusable. Other cases included arbitrary denial of tax exemptions for vehicles purchased by or donated to religious organizations.
Government policy continued to require religious education through civics classes and participation in state-sponsored events such as processions to commemorate religious events, such as Catholic festivals. High school students were primarily chosen for participation in these events, and government political signs with the slogan of “Christian, Socialist, and in Solidarity” were often posted around public schools. Teachers and families who opposed this policy were reportedly classified as political opponents and sometimes excluded from government assistance programs.
Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders continued to criticize the government’s use of Catholic language, tradition, and symbols to promote its political agenda, which they said undermined their religious integrity and threatened freedom of religion. The government continued to require community participation in government-hosted religious festivities. The government replicated Catholic celebrations and festivals, despite Catholic Church disapproval of this practice. The government required attendance by government workers to staff the events, leaving them unable to attend the official Catholic Church celebrations. For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, government institutions set up altars in the city streets and distributed free goods. Senior Catholic and evangelical leaders continued to express concern about what they said was the government’s use of retired Catholic clergy and Christian religious statements and symbols to promote its ideological and political agenda and officiate at government-sponsored politico-religious events. In the national election campaign, the government used religious language in daily press conferences in connection with official issues; government-sponsored billboards throughout the country and posters in government offices portrayed images of the president with the slogan “Christian, Socialist, and in Solidarity.”