Trinidad and Tobago

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
May 29, 2018

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Executive SummaryShare    

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and practice, including worship. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. Laws prohibit actions that incite religious hatred and violence. In June the parliament unanimously passed legislation outlawing childhood marriage, which changed the legal marriage age for all regardless of religious affiliation to 18. The president proclaimed the legislation in September. Religious organizations had mixed reactions to the new law. The Hindu Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, the National Muslim Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supported the legislation, while some religious organizations, including the leader of an orthodox Hindu organization (Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba) said it would infringe on religious rights. Religious groups said the government continued its financial support for religious ceremonies and for the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), an interfaith coordinating committee. The government’s national security policy continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group at any given time.

The government-funded IRO, representing diverse denominations within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Bahai Faith, continued to advocate for matters of religious concern and the importance of religious tolerance. With a mandate “to speak to the nation on matters of social, moral, and spiritual concern,” the IRO focused its efforts on marches, press conferences, and statements regarding tolerance for religious diversity and related issues.

U.S. embassy representatives met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the importance of government protection of religious equality. Embassy representatives met with the IRO to discuss interfaith cooperation and the value of religious tolerance. Embassy representatives conducted outreach to religious group leaders, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha, and Spiritual/Shouter Baptist, as part of its efforts to promote interfaith tolerance. Embassy representatives delivered remarks highlighting the value of religious plurality at a number of events.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 26.5 percent of the population is Protestant, including 12 percent Pentecostal or evangelical Christian, 5.7 percent Anglican, 4.1 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 2.5 percent Presbyterian or Congregational, 1.2 percent Baptist, 0.7 percent Methodist, and 0.3 percent Moravian. An additional 21.6 percent is Roman Catholic, 18.2 percent Hindu, 5 percent Muslim, and 1.5 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses. Traditional Caribbean religious groups with African roots include the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists, who represent 5.7 percent of the population, and the Orisha, who incorporate elements of West African spiritualism and Christianity, at 0.9 percent. According to the census, 2.2 percent of the population has no religious affiliation, 11.1 percent does not state a religious affiliation, and 7.5 percent lists their affiliation as “other,” which includes several small Christian groups, Bahais, Rastafarians, Buddhists, and Jews.

The ethnic and religious composition of the two islands varies distinctly. On Trinidad, the island constitutes 95 percent of the country’s total population; those of African descent make up 32 percent of the population and are predominantly Christian. A small, primarily Sunni Muslim community is concentrated in and around Port of Spain, along the east-west corridor of northern Trinidad, and in certain areas of central and south Trinidad. Those of East Indian descent constitute 37 percent of the population, roughly half of whom are Hindu, in addition to Muslims, Presbyterians, and Catholics. The population of Tobago is 85 percent African descent and predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance, including worship. It recognizes the existence of basic fundamental human rights and freedoms and prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The law prohibits acts of sedition and seditious intent, which includes engendering or promoting feelings of ill will towards, hostility to, or contempt for any class of inhabitants, including on the basis of religion.

A fine of up to 1,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (TT) ($150) may be levied for expressions of hatred directed specifically against a person’s religion, including any “riotous, violent, indecent, or disorderly behavior in any place of divine worship,” or attacks, ridicule, or vilification of another person’s religion in a manner likely to provoke a breach of the peace. An antiblasphemy law states, “Any person who is convicted of any act or an attempt to commit blasphemy, writing and publishing, or printing and publishing, any blasphemous libel… is liable to a fine and to imprisonment for two years”; however, the law is not enforced.

Judicial review, with the power of the court to modify or enforce orders, is available to those who claim to be victims of religious discrimination. Claimants may also appeal a court’s decision.

To receive tax-exempt donations or gifts of land, perform marriages, or receive visas for foreign missionaries, religious groups must register with the government. To register, groups must demonstrate they are nonprofit organizations, be in operation for at least one year, and submit a request for charitable status to the Ministry of Finance and the Economy. The request must include a certificate or articles of incorporation, the constitution and bylaws of the organization, and the most recently audited financial statements. Religious groups have the same rights and obligations as most legal entities, regardless of their registration status. They may, for example, own land and hire employees, and they are likewise liable for property taxes and government-mandated employee benefits.

Chaplains representing the different faiths present in the country may visit prisons to perform religious acts and to minister to prisoners.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools, allocating time each week during which any religious group may provide an instructor at the parent’s request for an adherent in the school. Attendance at these classes is voluntary, and the religious groups represented are diverse. The law states no individual may be refused admission to any public school based on religious beliefs, and no child is required to attend any religious observance or receive instruction in religious subjects as a condition of admission or continued attendance in a public school. Immunization is required of all children entering school. While parents may enroll their children in religiously affiliated private schools as an alternative to public education, the law does not permit homeschooling. Private schools, also called “assisted schools,” receive a combination of government and private funding for their facilities.

The government subsidizes religiously affiliated public schools, including schools operated by Christian, Hindu, and Muslim groups. The government allots primary school funding on a per-pupil basis, with the amount varying each year. For secondary schools, the government allots funding based on budget requests submitted by each school.

A new law passed in June raised the legal age of marriage to 18, ending decades of child marriages. The law amended a series of older marriage laws governing the marriage age for different religious groups.

Foreign missionaries must meet standard requirements for entry visas and must represent a registered religious group in the country. Permits are valid for a maximum period of three years, at a cost of TT 500 ($75) per year. Missionaries may not remain longer than three years per visit, but may re-enter after a year’s absence.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Religious organizations had mixed reactions to the new law setting the marriage age at 18 for all religious groups. Before the law passed, Hindu females could marry at 14 and males at 18, Muslim females could marry at 12 and males at 16, and Orisha females could marry at 16 and males at 18. The Hindu Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, the National Muslim Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, and other NGOs had made public calls to pass legislation to outlaw child marriage, and they supported the legislation. Other religious organizations, including the orthodox Hindu organization, Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba, opposed the law, stating it infringed on their constitutionally protected religious rights. Following the passage and enactment of the law, Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba leader Satnarayan Maharaj stated he would challenge the law.

The government financially supported activities of the IRO, an interfaith coordinating committee representing approximately 25 religious groups, including diverse denominations within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Orisha and Bahai faiths. Leaders from five religious groups – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Orisha, and Bahai – continued to deliver invocations at government-sponsored events, including the opening of parliament and the annual court term. According to the new IRO president, Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke, a Spiritual/ Shouter Baptist, the government maintained its previous levels of engagement and financing of religious organizations during the year.

Members of the government often participated in ceremonies and holidays of various religious groups, regularly emphasizing religious tolerance and harmony. Elected officials from both political parties routinely spoke publicly against religious intolerance. Prime Minister Keith Rowley issued public messages for Easter, Ramadan, and Diwali that underscored religious freedom, diversity, and unity. In his Diwali message, he said, “I am always heartened to note that Diwali is enjoyed by both Hindus and non-Hindus across the country, as persons journey to family and friends to share a meal and witness the remarkable displays of lighted deyas.”

The government continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group. Missionaries in excess of the 35 could stay in the country a maximum of 30 days. IRO members stated the law was applied equally, although some international religious groups or denominations reportedly maintained more than 35 missionaries in the country if they were affiliated with more than one registered group, including nonprofit groups and charities. The IRO’s former president, a Hindu, said the law continued to constrain Hindus, who had few missionaries but would like them to stay longer than the three-year legal limit. He said that other groups, such as the Mormons, consistently operated at their 35-missionary cap.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

The IRO, with a founding mandate “to speak to the nation on matters of social, moral, and spiritual concern,” continued to advocate for matters of religious concern. IRO efforts included marches and press conferences, as well as statements regarding religious tolerance and related issues.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and EngagementShare    

U.S. embassy representatives met with senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the importance of government protection of religious equality. The embassy hosted two iftars to promote respect for religious diversity, which included wide representation from the country’s diverse Muslim population. A senior Department of State official hosted one during his visit to the country in June; the Charge d’Affaires hosted the other.

In November the embassy hosted a roundtable to discuss interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance among representatives of groups that were both IRO members and nonmembers. Attendees included Presbyterians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha, and Shouter Baptists. Roundtable participants discussed interfaith marriage ceremonies, funerals, and family events planned in the country as well as the new child marriage law. In addition, the roundtable included a discussion of the religious community’s role in promoting human rights, including protecting the country’s religious diversity and arranging interfaith events, such as marriages and funerals.

Embassy staff met regularly with Muslim religious and civil society leaders for discussions on topics including religious tolerance and countering violent extremism. Embassy staff also continued working with religious groups, such as the National Muslim Women’s Organization and the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association, and delivered remarks on religious plurality at conventions of the Trinidad Muslim League and the Ahmadi Muslim Community.

The embassy utilized social media for outreach on the value of the freedom to worship according to one’s conscience.