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Antigua and Barbuda

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to practice and change one’s religion or belief. While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to perform religious rites. Some members of the Rastafarian community said they objected to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Embassy officials spoke with government officials, including from the Ministry of Social Transformation and Human Resource Development’s Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs, and a member of the Rastafarian community to highlight the value of religious diversity in contributing to society and the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. The embassy maintained frequent social media engagement on religious freedom issues. In January, a series of posts highlighted U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, and also included the history of religious freedom in the Eastern Caribbean.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 98,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 17.6 percent of the population is Anglican, 12.4 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 12.2 percent Pentecostal, 8.3 percent Moravian, 8.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 5.6 percent Methodist. Those with unspecified or no religious beliefs account for 5.5 percent and 5.9 percent of the population, respectively. Members of the Baptist Church, the Church of God, and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium each account for less than 5 percent of the population. The census categorizes an additional 12.2 percent of the population as belonging to other religious groups, including Rastafarians, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is, without providing percentages for each group. Based on anecdotal information, these four religious groups are listed from largest to smallest.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to change and practice one’s religion or belief. The constitution protects individuals from taking oaths contradictory to their beliefs or participating in events and activities of religions not their own, including participating in or receiving unwanted religious education. These rights may be limited in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights of others, unless actions under such limitations can be shown “not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The constitution prohibits members of the clergy from running for elected office. No law may be adopted that contradicts these constitutional provisions. The government does not enforce a law outlawing blasphemous language in a public place or any other place that would “cause annoyance to the public.”

The government does not require religious groups to register; however, to receive tax- and duty-free concessions and to own, build, or renovate property, religious groups must register with the government. To register, religious groups must fill out an online tax form that describes the group’s activities. The government uses this form to determine the group’s tax status. The Inland Revenue Department reviews and approves the completed form, usually granting registration and tax concessions.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Private schools may provide religious instruction. Public schools require parents to immunize their children to attend school. Some private schools do not require immunizations for their students. The law also permits homeschooling.

The law decriminalizing marijuana for any use also recognizes the government’s responsibility to uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafarian faiths. It allows these persons to apply for a special religious license to cultivate the plant within their private dwelling, use the plant for religious purposes within their private dwelling or within their approved place of worship, and transport the plant between their private dwelling and approved place of worship. The special religious license, however, does not permit any commercial or financial transaction involving any part of the cannabis plant.

Occupational health regulations require individuals with dreadlocks to cover their hair when they work with food, hazardous equipment, or in the health sector. These regulations apply to both public and private sector workplaces.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to engage in religious activities.

Some members of the Rastafarian community said they objected to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials spoke with the Ministry of Social Transformation and Human Resource Development’s Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs to highlight the value of religious diversity in contributing to society and the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

Embassy officials also spoke with a representative of the Rastafarian community and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting religious freedom, including of minority religious groups.

The embassy maintained frequent social media engagement on religious freedom issues. In January, a series of posts highlighted U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, and also included the history of religious freedom in the Eastern Caribbean.

Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution grants the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. Several religious groups continued to express frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups in order to be eligible for tax-exempt status, receive visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities, noting that the Catholic Church was exempt from this requirement. They also criticized an August General Inspectorate of Justice (IGJ) resolution requiring all civil associations, including religious groups, to have gender parity on their administrative and oversight bodies as unconstitutional and a violation of religious freedom. Restrictions imposed by the national and provincial governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited religious groups’ ability to meet in person, including for ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Although many religious leaders supported the measures as being in the interest of public health, the president of the interfaith Argentine Council for Religious Freedom (CALIR) criticized the national government’s restrictions for not expressly including religious workers as “essential.” The executive branch formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in June, and the National Congress did the same in September. According to media, in July, President Alberto Fernandez told Jewish community leaders he wanted to see progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish Community Center in which 86 persons died. On December 23, a federal court acquitted Carlos Telleldin of direct involvement in the bombing. Further appeals were expected. In July, President Fernandez publicly stated that Holocaust denial “cannot be tolerated.” On December 30, senators voted in favor of legislation legalizing abortions until 14 weeks of pregnancy. The Chamber of Deputies approved the bill earlier in the month. Religious figures of various faiths opposed the legislation.

The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) reported 918 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 834 reported complaints in 2018. The most commonly reported incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites. On April 1, Jewish organizations and the Ambassador of Israel criticized remarks by television journalist Tomas Mendez in which he blamed Israel for the COVID-19 virus; Mendez later apologized. In June, a Jewish cemetery in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, was vandalized, according to community members who denounced the act. Religious communities worked together to support people in need as a result of the pandemic, including through the #SeamosUno initiative that delivered its goal of one million boxes of food and sanitary necessities by the end of September. Interreligious groups, such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members include Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom continued work to promote tolerance and increase opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges.

U.S. embassy officials met with senior government officials, including the Secretariat of Worship and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship’s (MFA) human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination. The Ambassador recorded a message in September for an AMIA-produced remembrance video for the victims of 9/11 and another in October for a video commemoration organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress, marking the anniversary of a 2017 terrorist attack in New York in which five Argentines perished. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media postings.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. Government estimates the total population at 45.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2019 survey by CONICET, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown. Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population. According to AMIA, there are 220,000 Jews in the country, and the Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000. Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available. There are also small numbers of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith. It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.

The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies. The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA. Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the IGJ.

Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit. Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.

The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.

Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.

The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, nationality, ideology, politics, sex, economic or social condition, or physical characteristics, and requires those found guilty of discriminatory acts to pay damages or serve jail time. Discrimination may also be an aggravating factor in other crimes, leading to increased penalties. The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.

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

Government Practices

There was little progress in bringing the accused perpetrators of the 1994 AMIA bombing to justice. On December 23, a federal court acquitted defendant Carlos Telleldin of direct involvement in the AMIA bombing. According to the indictment, Telleldin provided the vehicle that attackers filled with explosives. AMIA and DAIA said they would appeal the verdict. An AMIA spokesperson stated that the country’s Jewish community has fought for justice for the victims and closure for the families for decades and said, “The court’s decision shamefully consolidates the path of impunity.” During a December interview with Radio 10, President Fernandez said he was now convinced that AMIA investigator Alberto Nisman committed suicide in 2015. A 2017 crime scene analysis by the country’s Gendarmerie concluded his death was a homicide, although an earlier study by the Federal Police suggested Nisman had shot himself.

According to media, in July, Fernandez told Jewish community leaders he wanted to see individuals brought to justice for the AMIA bombing. On July 16, Fernandez joined the director of AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs for a virtual conversation to mark the 26th anniversary of the AMIA bombing. Fernandez reaffirmed his commitment to bring those responsible to justice, and added, “We are all Argentines, and we respect each other’s religion, place of worship, and origin.” He also stated remembrance of the Holocaust must be absolute, adding, “We must foster collective memory so that we never forget what happened and so that it never happens again.”

Representatives of several religious groups continued to state that a government requirement for religious groups to register first with the Ministry of Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, noting the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were prerequisites for seeking tax-exempt status, visas for foreign clergy, and permission to hold public activities. Religious group representatives said they deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.

On August 3, pursuant to the registration process, the IGJ announced a requirement that all civil associations and foundations have equal numbers of male and female members on their administrative and oversight bodies. Several religious groups and CALIR released statements saying this requirement was unconstitutional and violated religious freedom. The president of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of the Argentine Republic (ACIERA), Ruben Proietti, told local media that if the requirement were applied to registered religious groups, it would be “an undue intrusion into the organization of churches.”

Some religious groups criticized the government’s May 20 decree establishing health restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as unfairly treating religious workers as nonessential compared with doctors, nurses, home health workers, and members of the security services. The decree’s ban on gatherings effectively prohibited in-person religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals, for several months. In August, Raul Sciabbala, the president of CALIR, noted the decree’s effects on religious freedom and criticized it for not expressly including religious workers as “essential.”

Several religious leaders expressed support for the pandemic-related measures. Omar Abboud, a local legislator and copresident of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Buenos Aires, said protecting lives was paramount and “no principle of religious freedom was damaged” in the city of Buenos Aires. Chief Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich issued a statement in May criticizing weddings held by two couples from the community in violation of the quarantine, adding that his rabbinate had not “endorsed nor consented” to either celebration.

At year’s end, the status of reopenings specifically for religious institutions varied by province and locality. On September 23, the government authorized in-person gatherings for worship in the city of Buenos Aires, with a maximum of 20 attendees and under strict protocols. The Province of Cordoba, however, suspended religious events in October in certain areas following an increase in COVID-19 cases, a measure the Archdiocese of Cordoba publicly opposed. In a statement, Archbishop Carlos Nanez noted the churches under his supervision carefully followed all health and safety protocols, adding that he hoped the churches would be allowed to attend to the “spiritual health” of their congregations.

On December 30, the National Congress passed legislation legalizing abortions up to and including the 14th week of pregnancy and in later stages if the pregnancy was the result of rape or if it threatened the life of the person gestating. Religious figures of various faiths opposed the government’s efforts to pass the legislation. On March 8, Catholic Church leaders held a “Mass for life” in Lujan, Buenos Aires Province. In his homily at the event, Bishop of San Isidro Oscar Ojea said “It is not legal to eliminate any human life.” On November 28, prolife groups marched in 267 cities as discussion of the law formally began in the lower house of congress. Approximately 150 prolife groups supported the march, which also received public backing from ACIERA and the CEA. In November, ACIERA bioethics director Jael Ojuel published an op-ed stating that legalizing abortion was not simply a “matter of public health” and that prolife groups sought to protect both mothers and their unborn children.

Numerous religious and prolife groups, including ACIERA, expressed continued concern over the case of a doctor arrested in 2017 for refusing to perform an abortion. In March, an appeals court in Rio Negro Province upheld a suspended sentence of one year and two months for misconduct against Leandro Rodriguez. The sentence prohibited him from practicing medicine for two years and four months. In 2017, Rodriguez treated a woman suffering from severe pain and an infection after taking misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug, in her fifth month of pregnancy. Rodriguez treated the infection and halted the abortion. Three months later, the woman delivered the baby and offered it up for adoption. Rodriguez’s legal team said he had halted the abortion on medical grounds and the patient had agreed to continue the pregnancy and give up the baby for adoption. Some religious groups, including local evangelical Christian churches, said the case set a precedent against abortion-related conscientious objection.

Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following a 2018 agreement between the government and the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), representing the Catholic Church, that delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from 130 million pesos ($1.46 million) in 2018 to 126 million pesos ($1.41 million) in 2019. On June 30, the CEA announced a program to generate increased private contributions toward Church activities.

According to media, in May, some Jewish community leaders opposed the government’s proposal to issue a new 5,000 peso banknote in honor of two historically prominent physicians, stating that one of them, Ramon Carrillo, was a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. Other Jewish groups, including DAIA, said they would wait until the government made a decision before commenting on the issue. Carrillo’s family rejected allegations regarding Carrillo’s pro-Nazi views and said there was a “smear campaign” against him.

On June 4, the MFA formally adopted the definition of anti-Semitism established by the IHRA, and on September 16, the National Congress did so as well. DAIA President Jorge Knoblovits told media it was “crucial to the battle against anti-Semitism.”

Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri, Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla, Buenos Aires Director General for Religious Affairs Federico Hernan Pugilese, and other government representatives participated in religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches. They often did so virtually or through recorded videos, given COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

On May 13, leading bioethicists representing the Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Church of Jesus Christ communities published a joint framework to assist doctors in performing triage and in assigning scarce health resources in the event that hospitals or practices were overwhelmed with patients as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 16, the city of Buenos Aires’ legislature formally recognized the framework.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

DAIA reported 918 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 834 reported complaints in 2018. The most commonly reported incidents were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites and social media. Included among these were commentaries that depicted Jews as outsiders as well as propagators of conspiracy theories and described Jews as avaricious or exploitative. Other recorded acts included graffiti, verbal slurs, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

On April 1, television journalist Tomas Mendez associated the origin of the COVID-19 virus with “the world’s wealthiest people born in the United States and Israel” during his program “Federal Journalism.” DAIA, the Ambassador of Israel, and INADI criticized the remarks. On April 2, Mendez publicly apologized.

According to media reports, in August, posters stating “Jews are the virus” and “Argentines, awaken to the world Jewish dictatorship” appeared in the city of Neuquen, in the southern part of the country. The regional president of DAIA condemned the posters and called on the local government to investigate and take action. On August 25, federal prosecutors in Neuquen announced a formal investigation, stating the posters constituted acts of discrimination punishable with a prison sentence of between one month and one year in length.

Following the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash in California on January 26, journalist Salim Sad tweeted, “Sikorsky S76 helicopter, of Jewish surname, kills Kobe Bryant.” The tweet was subsequently deleted. Sad said someone had hacked his account; however, according to DAIA, Sad had previously posted anti-Semitic tweets.

In March, media reported soccer player Arnaldo Gonzalez made an anti-Semitic gesture after being ejected from a game against a team with many Jewish supporters, leading calls for his prosecution under the country’s law that prohibits displays of discrimination. In November, the Argentine Football Association, rejecting his request for leniency, upheld a 10-game ban against Gonzalez.

In July, a professor at the 21th Century Business University in Cordoba told his students during an online class that the creation of the State of Israel was a concession to the “Zionist lobby” in exchange for money. He also said, “Why do you guys think the Nazis killed so many Jews? Because of the envy they had. Imagine Germans bleeding to death in a terminal economic crisis, with hyperinflation, and [while] the Jews…kept getting rich.” A student recorded the class and submitted the recording to DAIA, which submitted a complaint. After investigating the case, the university fired the professor.

In October, the National Soccer Association (AFA) adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. AFA President Claudio Tapia said it was part of a broader initiative to “combat racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”

In June, a Jewish cemetery in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, was vandalized, according to community members who denounced the acts. The vandalism included the theft of dozens of plaques and gravestones as well as the destruction of tombs. No suspects were detained.

In September, DAIA denounced anti-Semitic graffiti placed on an advertising banner promoting journalist Eduardo Feinmann’s program on Radio Rivadavia. The graffiti included swastikas and anti-Semitic language. DAIA denounced a similar attack on a poster of journalist Baby Etchecopar in July.

On September 28, vandals spray-painted slogans on an evangelical Christian church in Neuquen. The slogans included threats and accusations against prolife movements.

Religious communities worked together to support people in need as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts included the #SeamosUno (“We are one”) initiative organized by the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Social Action in collaboration with Caritas, ACIERA, AMIA, and the Association of Christian Business Leaders, among others. On September 30, the organization delivered its one-millionth box of food and sanitary necessities.

Interreligious groups, such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom, continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges. In September, they organized an online speaker series at a local university to provide viewpoints from various religious leaders on life and worship during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 74 percent of the country’s respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it high among the nine democratic principles covered in the survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with government representatives, including the Secretariat of Worship, the MFA’s human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed tolerance, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination.

The embassy’s engagement continued virtually after the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the Ambassador attended an online commemoration to mourn the victims of the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA. He also recorded a message in September for an AMIA-produced remembrance video for the victims of 9/11 and another in October for a video commemoration organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress that marked the anniversary of the 2017 terrorist attack in New York in which five Argentines were killed. In February, a senior embassy official met with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country and ways in which the embassy could support communities of all faiths.

Embassy outreach included virtual conversations with religious and community leaders, including those at DAIA, AMIA, and the Islamic Center. In the meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and ways to promote them. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs focused on social work and community service (for example, #SeamosUno) and discussed promoting respect for religious diversity as well as faith-based responses to poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and malnutrition.

Barbados

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief. The government does not require religious groups to register and grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. In October, the government announced its approval of an exemption for official photographs to allow male and female applicants to wear religiously-mandated head coverings. The exemption will apply to passport, drivers’ licenses, and national identification card photographs, among others. Muslim and Rastafarian communities requested the exemption and said they were pleased with the outcome. On September 15, the government announced its intention to decriminalize the personal use and possession of small amounts of marijuana, legally recognize same-sex civil unions, and raise the question of whether same-sex marriage should be legal through a public referendum. Some religious leaders, including of the Anglican Church, expressed opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage and said they would not perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Asheba Trotman, the head of the Rastafarian community organization Ichirouganaim Council for the Advancement of Rastafari (ICAR), welcomed marijuana decriminalization, but said the community hoped eventually further measures would enable them to cultivate marijuana on their farms for personal as well as commercial use.

ICAR head Trotman said that in the organization’s view, social attitudes had changed, and Rastafarians were well accepted.

On October 8, the Ambassador hosted an event with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom. Representatives from the Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of the Nazarene, and Jewish communities participated.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 295,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian, including Anglicans (23.9 percent of the total population), Pentecostals (19.5 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Church of the Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent). Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other religious groups, together constituting less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha’is. Approximately 21 percent of respondents do not identify a religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and prohibition of discrimination based on creed. A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is not enforced.

The government requires religious groups to register only in order to obtain duty-free import privileges and tax benefits. A religious group must file the relevant customs and tax forms with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office, along with a resolution passed by the majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, plus the group’s related statutory declaration.

The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools to help cover the cost of students who could not find space in a public school. The public school curriculum includes religious “values education” as part of the historic association of schools with Christian missionaries, who founded many of the schools. At the primary school level, the focus is on nondenominational Christianity. At the secondary school level, all major religions are included. The constitution protects students from mandatory religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or, if younger than age 21, consent of parents or guardians.

By law, vaccinations are required for all school-age children attending both public and private schools as well as those who are homeschooled. The vaccination program is administered through the Ministry of Health, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. There are no exceptions for religious beliefs. Homeschooled children must be registered with the Ministry of Education.

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

Government Practices

In October, the government announced its approval of an exemption for official photographs to allow male and female applicants to wear religiously-mandated head coverings. Government officials said the exemption would apply to passport, drivers’ licenses, and national identification card photographs, among others. Muslim and Rastafarian communities requested the exemption and said they were pleased with the outcome.

On September 15, the government announced its intention to decriminalize the personal use and possession of small amounts of marijuana (half an ounce or less), legally recognize same-sex civil unions, and raise the question of whether same-sex marriage should be legal through a public referendum. Leaders of the Anglican and Pentecostal Churches expressed opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage. According to the government, the decision to recognize same-sex civil unions was justified to protect individuals’ civil rights. According to media, on September 22 the Anglican Church of Barbados announced it would not recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. The Anglican Church said its decision was based on the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in England, which found that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman. Anglican leaders said they would not perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Leaders of other religious groups also said they would oppose any government actions that would compel them to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Based on media reports, there appeared to be minimal opposition from mainstream religious organizations to the government’s marijuana decriminalization decision, which makes possession of small amounts unlawful and subject to a fine of 200 Barbados dollars ($100) rather than an arrest. An ICAR member said the Rastafarian community welcomed the decriminalization decision and hoped it would ultimately lead to measures enabling them to engage in marijuana cultivation on their farms for personal use as well as commercial opportunities. The ICAR representative said the commercial and medicinal benefits of marijuana cultivation were well established, and the community was optimistic about further liberalization.

ICAR head Asheba Trotman reported the discrimination she said her community experienced in years past had diminished and for the most part its members were accepted. Trotman said that among its younger members, Rastafarianism was considered a cultural movement with a strong connection to the African legacy that the vast majority of Barbadians shared. She said younger members did not think of Rastafarianism as a religious organization.

According to Trotman, Rastafarians continued to object to the government’s vaccination requirement for school enrollment.

Leaders of religious organizations said COVID-19 public health restrictions on gatherings, although applied equally in the country, adversely impacted their finances, limited their ability to conduct in-person services, and hampered their membership growth prospects. Several organizations reported they successfully implemented online services to offset the public gathering limits.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Family-Faith-Freedom, a group whose members represent 49 churches across the country, organized weekly marches against the legalization of same-sex unions. Social media reaction to news coverage of these events was very critical of the marches. Some commentators urged churches to focus on other issues, said march organizers were hypocritical, ignorant, or bigoted, or affirmed their support of same-sex unions or the right to privacy.

A Rastafarian community leader said discrimination against community members had diminished and societal acceptance and tolerance had increased, including in the workplace.

According to church leaders, a positive aspect of COVID-19 restrictions was a net increase in combined online and in-person participation in worship services compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers. The leaders said online worship opportunities enabled leaders to engage younger individuals, whom they said were essential to their growth prospects because religious community membership across the country was generally skewed towards individuals over 60 years old.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 8, the Ambassador hosted an event with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom. Among those invited, representatives from the Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Nazarene, and Jewish communities participated.

Chile

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The law prohibits religious discrimination and provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination. Religion and state are officially separate. The National Office of Religious Affairs (ONAR), an executive government agency, is charged with facilitating communication between faith communities and the government and ensuring the protection of the rights of religious minorities. ONAR continued to work with local authorities in the communities affected by attacks on churches in several regions of the country, including the Araucania and Santiago Regions, to rebuild the damaged churches. In October, the Secretary General of the Government, Jaime Bellolio, condemned the use of Nazi symbols and gestures displayed during a protest against a referendum on drafting a new constitution. In July, the mayor of the city of Recoleta said there was a “Zionist conspiracy” in the country to control media during a radio interview. The Jewish community and other public representatives condemned the mayor’s accusations. In July, the senate approved a nonbinding pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) resolution calling on President Sebastian Pinera to adopt a law boycotting goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and commercial activities with companies operating in the West Bank. The Jewish Community of Chile condemned the resolution, stating it was anti-Semitic. According to ONAR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the nonbinding resolution had no impact on government action. During the year, ONAR held roundtable discussions with religious leaders to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s quarantine and movement restrictions on religious communities. Some religious groups opposed the government’s COVID-19 measures, including two associations of evangelical churches, which filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the country for violating the freedoms of religion and worship established in the American Convention on Human Rights.

In November, unknown subjects burned an evangelical Christian church in the southern region of Araucania, and several priests and churches in the region reportedly received threats during the year. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern regarding the rise in anti-Semitism in the country, including anti-Semitic signs and chants during marches in October by self-described nationalist groups opposed to a referendum on drafting a new constitution. On October 18, hooded individuals marking the one-year anniversary of civil unrest in the country set fire to two churches in downtown Santiago. The bell tower of the Church of the Assumption was completely destroyed.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy representatives periodically met with government officials to discuss reports of anti-Semitism, religious minorities’ security concerns, and institutional cooperation among government and religious organizations. They also met with civil society and religious leaders to discuss religious diversity and tolerance and to raise incidents of concern, including perceived threats to the Jewish community. The embassy continued to use social media to underscore the importance of interfaith understanding and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to ONAR’s 2018 estimates, 60 percent of the population self-identifies as Roman Catholic and an estimated 18 percent identifies as “evangelical,” a term used in the country to refer to non-Catholic Christian groups, including Episcopalians, but not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Churches (including the Armenian, Greek, Persian, Serbian, and Ukrainian communities), and Seventh-day Adventists. In the most recent census that included religious affiliation, conducted in 2002, Baha’is, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the Church of Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Churches, and other unspecified religious groups together constituted less than 5 percent of the population. An estimated 4 percent of the population identifies as atheist or agnostic, while 17 percent of the population identifies as nonreligious. According to ONAR, 9 percent of the population self-identifies as indigenous, of which approximately 30 percent identify as Catholic, 38 percent as evangelical, and 6 percent as other; the remaining 26 percent did not identify with any religion. ONAR states that many of those individuals also incorporate traditional indigenous faith practices into their worship.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the free exercise of worship. It states these practices must not be “opposed to morals, to good customs, or to the public order.” Religious groups may establish and maintain places of worship, as long as the locations comply with public hygiene and security regulations established by laws and municipal orders.

According to the constitution, religion and state are officially separate. The law prohibits discrimination based on religion, provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination based on their religion or belief, and increases criminal penalties for acts of discriminatory violence. The law prohibits discrimination in the provision of social services, education, ability to practice religious beliefs or gain employment, property rights, and the right to build places of worship.

By law, registration for possible conscription to the military is mandatory for all men between the ages of 17 and 45. Alternative service, by working for the armed forces in a job related to the selectee’s expertise, is possible only for those studying in certain fields. The law makes no provision for conscientious objection. Only ministers or priests from registered religious organizations are exempted on religious grounds.

The law does not require religious groups to register with the government, although there are tax benefits for those that do. Once registered, a religious group is recognized as a religious nonprofit organization. Religious organizations have the option of adopting a charter and bylaws suited to a religious entity rather than to a private corporation or a secular nonprofit. Under the law, religious nonprofit organizations may create affiliates, such as charitable foundations, schools, or additional houses of worship, which retain the tax benefits of the religious parent organization. According to ONAR, public law recognizes more than 3,200 religious organizations as legal entities, mostly small evangelical or Pentecostal churches. By law, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may not refuse to accept the registration petition of a religious entity, although it may object to petitions within 90 days if legal prerequisites for registration are not satisfied.

Applicants for religious nonprofit status must provide the MOJ an authorized copy of their charter and corresponding bylaws with charter members’ signatures and their national identification numbers. The bylaws must include the organization’s mission, creed, and structure. The charter must specify the signatories, the name of the organization, and its physical address, and it must include confirmation that the religious institution’s charter signatories approved the bylaws. In the event the MOJ raises objections to the group, the group may petition; the petitioning group has 60 days to address the MOJ’s objections or challenge them in court. Once a religious entity is registered, the state may not dissolve it by decree. If concerns are raised regarding a religious group’s activities after registration, the semiautonomous Council for the Defense of the State may initiate a judicial review of the matter. The government has never deregistered a legally registered group. One registration per religious group is sufficient to extend nonprofit status to affiliates, such as additional places of worship or schools, clubs, or sports organizations, without registering them as separate entities.

By law, all public schools must offer religious education for two teaching hours per week through pre-elementary, elementary, middle, and high school. Local school administrators decide how religious education classes are structured. The majority of religious instruction in public schools is Catholic. The Ministry of Education also has approved instruction curricula designed by 14 other religious groups, including orthodox and reformed Jews, evangelical Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists. Schools must provide religious instruction for students according to students’ religious affiliations. Parents may have their children excused from religious education. Parents also have the right to homeschool their children for religious reasons or enroll them in private, religiously oriented schools.

The law grants religious groups the right to appoint chaplains to offer religious services in public hospitals and prisons. Prisoners may request religious accommodations. Regulations for the armed forces and law enforcement agencies allow officially registered religious groups to appoint chaplains to serve in each branch of the armed forces, the national uniformed police, and the national investigative police.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the government implemented health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including curfews, stay-at-home orders, quarantines, and limits to public gatherings, including religious services. According to ONAR, the restrictions applied to all types of public gatherings and did not impose arbitrary restrictions on individuals’ freedom of conscience and worship. ONAR stated it worked with local and national health authorities to obtain authorization for priests and ministers to be included in the definition of “essential personnel” allowed to circulate during quarantines, and it held roundtable discussions with religious leaders to inform them of COVID-19 measures and hear their concerns.

According to church leaders, police shut down some religious services and detained religious leaders who did not comply with the health restrictions on public gatherings and continued holding services exceeding the permitted capacity. Some religious groups opposed the restrictions, stating the measures infringed on their religious freedom. In June, two associations of evangelical churches (Evangelical Unity of Chile and The Coordinator of Pentecostal Evangelical Entities) in the Biobio Region sued the government over the measures and also filed a complaint with the IACHR against the government for violating the freedoms of religion and worship established in the American Convention on Human Rights. In July, the Concepcion Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the evangelical associations, declaring that regional health authorities acted “outside the scope of their competence and without having powers to do so” when they temporarily prohibited religious gatherings in the Maule, Biobio, and Aysen Regions. The court found the regions had applied stricter standards to religious gatherings than to other types of gatherings.

In September, the government released a special protocol for managing and preventing COVID-19 infections at religious places and religious communities when celebrating their rites and ceremonies. The protocol allowed religious groups to return to holding religious activities while recommending they hold virtual meetings, reduce the number of participants as much as possible, and control access to religious sites to avoid exceeding the number of persons allowed concurrently in the same place.

According to ONAR, the MOJ received 240 applications for registration of religious groups during the year. ONAR also reported the MOJ did not reject any petition and registered every group that completed the required paperwork.

In July during a radio interview, Mayor Daniel Jadue of the commune of Recoleta, in Santiago Province, alleged a “Zionist conspiracy” in the country to control the media. The Jewish community and public personalities quickly condemned Jadue’s comments. The director of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Espacio Publico (Public Space), Eduardo Bitran, tweeted that the mayor’s accusation was “in line with the purest kind of anti-Semitism.”

In October, the Secretary General of the Government, Jaime Bellolio, condemned the use of Nazi symbols and gestures displayed during an October 10 protest against a referendum on drafting a new constitution.

ONAR continued to work with religious institutions to help restore services to repair religious sites damaged during widespread riots in 2019. More than 60 Catholic and evangelical churches and at least one synagogue were vandalized, looted, or burned during the riots.

In July, the senate approved a nonbinding pro-BDS resolution calling on President Pinera to adopt a law boycotting goods produced in Israeli West Bank settlements and commercial activities with companies operating in the West Bank. The Jewish Community of Chile condemned the resolution, stating it was anti-Semitic in nature. According to ONAR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the nonbinding resolution had no impact on government policy.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 18, hooded individuals marking the one-year anniversary of civil unrest in the country set fire to two churches in downtown Santiago. The bell tower of the Church of the Assumption was completely destroyed. The unidentified individuals also set fire to parts of the San Francisco de Borja Church, the institutional church of the Carabineros (National Police). Government officials and religious leaders widely condemned the attacks. Catholic Archbishop of Santiago Celestino Aos condemned the attack, stating he had mistakenly thought the damage to multiple churches during civil unrest in 2019 had taught a lesson against the use of violence.

On November 13, unknown individuals burned an evangelical church as part of a series of violent incidents in the southern region of Araucania. Several priests and churches in the region reportedly received threats during the year. ONAR helped the affected churches report the threats to police and pressed for increased police monitoring and patrols of religious buildings in the region. The Mapuche, the country’s largest indigenous group, consider most of Araucania as ancestral territory and continued to call for the government to return lands confiscated prior to the return to democracy in the late 1980s. Some factions of the Mapuche continued to use violence, including attacks on facilities and vehicles of industrial producers, such as farms and logging companies, as well as churches and private residences, to demand the return of land.

Jewish community leaders again expressed concern regarding a rise in anti-Semitism in the country. In October, protesters belonging to nationalist groups opposed to a referendum on drafting a new constitution carried anti-Semitic signs and used neo-Nazi symbols and salutes. In response, Marcelo Isaacson, executive director of the Jewish Community of Chile, the country’s umbrella Jewish organization, tweeted, “Germany 1930? No, Chile October 2020. Hate takes over the streets of Chile.” Government officials and other religious leaders quickly condemned the acts.

The Chilean Association for Interreligious Dialogue (ADIR), an NGO formed by religious leaders of an official government advisory council on religious affairs after the council disbanded in 2018, continued working during the year, promoting diversity, tolerance, and open dialogue and supporting religious communities’ efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mohamed Rumie, imam of Santiago’s largest mosque, took over the presidency of ADIR during the year.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives periodically met with government officials, including ONAR, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Interior Ministry, and congress, to discuss the status of religious minorities in the country and their security concerns, reports of anti-Semitism, and institutional cooperation among government and religious organizations. They also met with civil society and religious leaders to discuss religious diversity and tolerance and to discuss incidents of concern, including perceived threats to the Jewish community.

The embassy highlighted Ramadan, International Religious Freedom Day, and the United Nations’ International Day for Tolerance through social media posts encouraging interfaith understanding and religious tolerance.

Colombia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers. The MOI continued to hold training sessions on community development strategies for religious groups and societal leaders. Religious leaders expressed continued concern regarding a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. Religious leaders noted their increased involvement with the MOI, including in the planning process for the country’s role as host of the Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Religious leaders reported arbitrary enforcement of the tax law, specifically regarding the taxability of donations to religious organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) and the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) 2019 agreement to study the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations went into effect, and the department of Cundinamarca officially enrolled in the study in August. On February 28, the MOI released a new public policy draft decree on religious freedom and worship aimed at increasing coordination with religious groups in an effort to update a 1997 agreement that stipulated which religious organizations might perform government-recognized services. According to the MOI, these decrees would enable religious groups, in addition to the original signatories, to have the authority to engage in activities such as marriages, funeral services, chaplain services, and spiritual assistance. By year’s end, 19 major cities and 14 departments had adopted new public policies on religious freedom, up from 14 and 11 at the close of 2019.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that illegal armed groups threatened and physically attacked leaders and members of religious organizations in many areas of the country. The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) reported members of illegal armed groups killed three leaders of religious organizations and committed acts of violence against 16 others that resulted in injury.

The Jewish community reported continued anti-Semitic comments on social media sites, including some that questioned Israel’s right to exist. During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation. Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement. The Catholic Church in the country and other religious organizations helped the Association of Food Banks of Colombia distribute more than 33 million pounds of food during the COVID-19 pandemic to all in need regardless of religion.

U.S. embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom, including conscientious objection to military service and the effect of illegal armed actors on religious practice, with government officials. Embassy officials met with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the AGO, the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI, and members of congress. Embassy officials discussed with the MOI public policies on religious freedom and worship, including support for victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations and the importance of ensuring indigenous groups were included in government-sponsored events on religious tolerance and inclusion. Embassy officials also met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish and Muslim communities, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Baha’is, Greek Orthodox, and members of indigenous groups. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed issues related to the government’s policies on religious freedom, conscientious objection, anti-Semitism, and government support for religious organizations providing services for trafficking victims, internally displaced persons, and Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 49.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2017 survey by the NGO Latinobarometer, 73 percent of the population is Catholic, 14 percent Protestant, and 11 percent atheist or agnostic. Groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include nondenominational worshipers or members of other religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International, Mennonites, Baha’is, and Buddhists. The Colombian Confederation of Jewish Communities (CJCC) estimates there are approximately 5,500 Jews. According to Baha’i leaders, there are approximately 60,000 followers; a Buddhist representative estimates there are 9,000 adherents in the country. There are between 85,000 and 100,000 Muslims, according to a 2018 Pew research study. There is also a small population of adherents to animism and various syncretic beliefs.

Some religious groups are concentrated in certain geographical regions. Most of those who blend Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians and reside on the Pacific coast. Most Jews reside in major cities (approximately 70 percent in Bogota), most Muslims on the Caribbean coast, and most adherents of indigenous animistic religions in remote rural areas. A small Taoist community is located in a mountainous region of Santander Department.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. There is no official state church or religion, but the law says the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” The constitution states all religions and churches are equal before the law. A 1998 Constitutional Court ruling upholds the right of traditional authorities to enforce the observation of and participation in traditional religious beliefs and practices on indigenous reserves. Subsequent rulings refer to the 1998 decision to reaffirm the right of indigenous governors to prohibit the practice of certain religions on indigenous reserves. A concordat between the Holy See and the government, recognized and enforced by law, recognizes marriages performed by the Catholic Church, allows the Church to provide chaplaincy services, and exempts members of the Catholic clergy from compulsory public service, including military service. According to a court ruling, these provisions are constitutional as long as they apply to all religious groups, but the legal framework is not in place to extend them to all religious groups. The law prohibits any official government reference to a religious affiliation for the country.

The MOI is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, as well as keeping a public registry of religious entities. Entities formally recognized by the MOI may then confer this recognition, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated groups sharing the same beliefs. The application process requires submission of a formal request and basic organizational information, including copies of the organization’s constitution and an estimate of the number of members. The government considers a religious group’s total membership, its “degree of acceptance within society,” and other factors, such as the organization’s statutes and its required behavioral norms, when deciding whether to grant it formal recognition. The MOI is authorized to reject requests that are incomplete or do not fully comply with established requirements. The MOI provides a free, web-based registration process for religious and faith-based organizations seeking recognition. Formally recognized entities may collect funds and receive donations, establish religious education institutions, and perform religious services, excluding marriages. Unregistered entities may perform religious activities without penalty but may not collect funds or receive donations.

The state recognizes as legally binding marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and 13 non-Catholic Christian denominations that are signatories to a 1997 public law agreement. The agreement authorizes these religious groups to engage in activities such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance in prisons, hospitals, military facilities, and educational institutions. Under this agreement, members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor affiliated with signatories must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage. Religious groups not signatories to the 1997 public law may not provide chaplaincy services or conduct state-recognized marriages.

The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the education of their child, including religious instruction. The law states religious education shall be offered in accordance with laws protecting religious freedom, and it identifies the Ministry of Education as responsible for establishing guidelines for teaching religion within the public school curriculum. Religious groups, including those that have not acceded to the public law agreement, may establish their own schools, provided they comply with ministry requirements. A Constitutional Court ruling obligates schools to implement alternative accommodations for students based on their religion, which could include students at religious institutions opting out of prayers or religious lessons. The government does not provide subsidies for private schools run by religious organizations.

The law imposes a penalty of one to three years in prison and a fine of 10 to 15 times the monthly minimum wage, approximately 8.3 million to 12.4 million Colombian pesos ($2,400 to $3,600), for violations of religious freedom, including discrimination based on religion. The penal code also prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs, including physical or moral harm.

A Constitutional Court ruling states that citizens, including members of indigenous communities, may be exempt from compulsory military service if they can demonstrate a serious and permanent commitment to religious principles that prohibit the use of force. Conscientious objectors who are exempt from military service may complete alternative, government-selected public service. The law requires that regional interagency commissions (Interdisciplinary Commissions on Conscientious Objection, under the Ministry of Defense) evaluate requests for conscientious objector status; commission members include representatives from the armed forces, the Inspector General’s Office, and medical, psychological, and legal experts. By law, the National Commission of Conscientious Objection reviews any cases not resolved at the regional level. The law requires that every battalion or larger military unit designate an officer in charge of processing conscientious objector exemptions.

According to the law, all associations, foundations, and corporations declared as nonprofit organizations, including foundations supported by churches or religious organizations recognized by the MOI, must pay taxes. Churches and religious organizations recognized by the MOI are tax-exempt, but they must report their incomes and expenses to the National Tax and Customs Authority. According to a Constitutional Court ruling, the state may not seize the assets of non-Catholic churches in legal proceedings if the church meets the requirements for formal government recognition.

Foreign missionaries must possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. The MFA issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who are members of religious organizations officially recognized and registered with the MOI. When applying for a visa, foreign missionaries must have a certificate from either the MOI or church authorities confirming registration of their religious group with the MFA. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a registered religious group confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. The visa application also requires a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious group stating the organization accepts full financial responsibility for the expenses of the applicant and family, including funds for return to their country of origin or last country of residence. Applicants must explain the purpose of the proposed sojourn and provide proof of economic means. A Constitutional Court ruling stipulates that no group may impose religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.

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

Government Practices

The MOI reported there were 8,214 formally recognized religious entities in the country as of September, compared with 7,763 at the end of 2019. It received 393 applications for formal recognition of religious entities, compared with 771 in 2019; approved 343, compared with 481 in 2019; and deferred or denied 12, compared with 32 in 2019. The MOI stated that the deferred and denied petitions were because the applying entity failed to meet the legal requirements and/or because it failed to provide missing information during the year. The MOI stated it continued to review the remaining applications. According to the MOI, 100 percent of the applications were from evangelical Christian churches. The MOI continued to give applicants who submitted incomplete applications or incorrect supporting documents 30 days to bring their applications into compliance. If the MOI deemed an application incomplete, it could deny the application; however, the applying organization could resubmit an application at any time, and the MOI indicated there was no waiting period to reapply.

On February 28, the MOI released a new public policy draft decree on religious freedom and worship aimed at increasing coordination with religious groups and updating a 1997 agreement to include additional religious groups. According to the MOI, the draft decree would enable religious groups not included in the original signatories to have the authority to engage in activities such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance. The government made available the draft for public comment for 15 days on the MOI website. After receiving no comments, the MOI moved the draft to the Minister of Interior for signature, where it awaited at year’s end before proceeding to the President for signature. The MOI released for public comment a second related decree to increase access for religious organizations to perform chaplain services. At year’s end, this draft decree had received no comments and was awaiting signatures from the Minister of Interior and the President.

The 2019 agreement between the government and UNDP to study the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations went into effect and in August, Cundinamarca became the first department to become part of the study. According to the MOI, it intended to expand the study to the country’s remaining 31 departments. On October 28, the MOI launched a new Academic Network for the Respect and Guarantee of Religious Freedom whose goal was to engage university researchers in investigating religious tolerance in the country.

According to the MOI and religious leaders, the ministry continued implementing its public policy goal of raising awareness of the role of religious groups in supporting victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations, as well as strengthening interreligious cooperation and tolerance at the local level through structured interfaith dialogues and technical assistance. The MOI led 14 virtual and in-person workshops to assist local authorities and religious organizations on various aspects of the policy, with a focus on taxes, religious facilities, and education. The workshops also focused on increasing religious tolerance, postconflict victim support, and outreach to vulnerable populations. The MOI also launched a new program in August that held 25 virtual workshops to train religious leaders and public servants in constructing and managing social projects.

By year’s end, 19 major cities had adopted new public policies on religious freedom, compared with 14 major cities and 11 departments in 2019. The policies included public campaigns to promote religious tolerance and nondiscrimination, as well as efforts to strengthen communication between religious groups and government institutions at the national and regional levels. Religious freedom and respect for religious groups were included in new territorial development plans for 2020-23 in 16 departments and 24 municipalities. The national outreach programs continued to prioritize integrating the religious community into public policy discussions, including on how to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the increasing number of Venezuelans residing in the country, and how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to religious groups, individuals continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from military service on religious grounds. Religious leaders expressed continued concern regarding a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. Religious organizations reported mixed enforcement of the conscientious objector law, stating that some objectors were still required to serve in the military, although they were exempt from carrying a weapon. The Ministry of Defense reported that by year’s end, it had approved 85 of 117 applications seeking conscientious objector status on religious grounds.

Religious leaders of Catholic and Protestant churches continued to report the parameters of the tax law governing religious organizations were not clear and that enforcement was arbitrary because the tax-related responsibilities for religious organizations remained unclear. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia, representing the Catholic Church, continued to express concern that taxes on religious nonprofit organizations were limiting those organizations’ ability to deliver social services in their communities.

The CJCC continued to express concern that some political figures associated with the country’s self-defined left-leaning political parties used anti-Semitic rhetoric during political campaigns, referring to Israeli military operations in Palestinian-controlled territory as a new version of the Holocaust. Political analysts said such rhetoric was not representative of the views of left-leaning parties.

The National Police, through the Protection and Special Services Directorate, continued to provide security for religious sites and leaders deemed at risk.

The country observed July 4 as the National Day of Religious Freedom. In connection with the observance, the MOI and regional governments held forums and other events to educate the public on the significance of the holiday and new public policy and to build bridges with religious organizations. On July 4, President Ivan Duque Marquez met virtually with representatives of the country’s main religious communities and organizations. During the meeting, he highlighted what he said was the progress achieved by the country in the field of religious freedom, and he said that the defense of freedom of religion is intrinsic to the democratic society to which the country aspires.

The government hosted the first Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief on October 22-23. The first day of the virtual event brought together experts and leaders from various religious organizations in the Western Hemisphere to discuss challenges to freedom of religion or belief. The second day featured a ministerial during which ministers of foreign affairs made statements on the promotion and guarantee of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Vice Minister of Interior Carlos Alberto Baena Lopez highlighted the government’s commitment to protecting religious freedom, while Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Adriana Mejia Hernandez said the country took seriously the responsibility to protect the rights of religious minorities, adding that any threat to freedom of religion was a threat to democracy. Religious leaders said they were pleased with their increased involvement with the MOI in planning the country’s role as forum host.

An interagency working group formed in 2018 with the participation of several religious organizations met virtually to discuss the role of such organizations in the internal peace and reconciliation process and to plan for the Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief. It also discussed the response of religious organizations to the crisis in Venezuela.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Jewish community again reported anti-Semitic comments on social media sites, including by a communist group that posted, “Wealthy Jews represent exploitative capitalism.”

According to a representative of the Abou Bakir Alsiddiq Mosque in Bogota, unlike in previous years when unidentified individuals vandalized the mosque, most recently in June 2019, there were no reported acts of vandalism during the year.

During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation. Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement.

The Catholic Church and other religious organizations helped the Association of Food Banks of Colombia distribute more than 15 million kilograms (more than 33 million pounds) of food during the COVID-19 pandemic to all in need regardless of religion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed conscientious objection to military service, the tax law, and the effects of the actions of guerrilla and illegal armed groups on religious freedom with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the AGO, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. They also discussed the importance of ensuring indigenous groups were included in government-sponsored events on religious tolerance and inclusion. Embassy officials also met with members of congress across several political parties to discuss government financial support for NGOs, including religious affiliated organizations that provide short- and long-term housing for victims of human trafficking, the homeless, and Venezuelan refugees and migrants.

The embassy highlighted on social media U.S. collaboration with the government and civil society to promote respect for religious pluralism and diversity of belief, to condemn anti-Semitism, and to highlight local events promoting religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy representatives participated in religious freedom events. On September 14, the Ambassador spoke about the role of freedom of religious expression in building a durable peace at the Combating Anti-Semitism event hosted by the Latino Coalition for Israel.

Embassy officials met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Baha’is, Witness for Peace, the CJCC, the Greek Orthodox Church, Bogota’s Muslim community, representatives from a coalition of indigenous religions, and other faith-based NGOs, including Global Ministries, the Colombian Evangelical Council’s Peace Commission, and CONFELIREC. They discussed government support for religious organizations providing services for internally displaced persons, victims of human trafficking, and Venezuelan migrants and refugees, as well as the organizations’ response to combating religious intolerance and support for the 2016 peace accord that ended the conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Religious community leaders outlined ways in which their organizations were participating in peacebuilding efforts.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that does not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior,” and it provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. In February, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) rejected an accusation of political hostility filed against the Conference of Catholic Bishops. A draft 2019 bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state remained on the Legislative Assembly’s plenary agenda, but it was not on the priority list of bills for legislators during the year. In June, Catholic bishops, with the support of the Evangelical Alliance, stated their opposition to the proposal to remove Catholicism as the official state religion, stating doing so would erode religious freedom in the country. Some non-Catholic religious leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of their religious groups, in particular regarding registration processes, expressing a preference for a separate registration procedure for religious groups rather than being obligated to register as associations. The Constitutional Chamber received 24 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom in government institutions and discrimination by government entities, an increase related to cases based on COVID-19 restrictions, compared with 10 in 2019. The chamber dismissed 19 of the claims, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination, compared with eight dismissals in 2019. Many of the dismissed claims involved government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the other five cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants, including two Seventh-day Adventists – a student and a police officer – who defended their right to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays.

Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by continued high level investigations of priests charged with sexual abuse. Jewish community leaders reported anti-Israeli comments, some of which they considered anti-Semitic, although not directed at Jews living in the country. Interludio, an interreligious forum created in 2017 and with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities. The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including informative talks, concerts, and drive-through activities during the pandemic.

U.S. embassy representatives engaged with public officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. They also met with religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom, the situation of churches during the pandemic, and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the free exercise of religious beliefs. The embassy provided funding to the Resilience Academy, coordinated by the Museum of Empathy and providing psychological and spiritual support to those especially vulnerable due to the pandemic. On October 5, the embassy hosted a roundtable with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education; and other religious groups to discuss religious freedom and their members’ experiences during the pandemic. The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages highlighting tolerance and respect for religious diversity to religious groups on special religious occasions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A 2019 survey by the Center for Research and Political Studies of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) with other institutions estimates 40 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 52 percent in the 2018 UCR survey); 36 percent Protestant, including evangelical Christians (22 percent in 2018); and 20 percent without religious affiliation (17 percent in 2018).

The majority of Protestants are Pentecostal, with smaller numbers of Lutherans and Baptists. There are an estimated 32,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, predominantly on the Caribbean coast. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates its membership at 50,000. The Jewish Zionist Center estimates there are between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews in the country. Approximately 1,000 Quakers live near the cloud forest reserve of Monteverde, Puntarenas. Smaller groups include followers of Islam, Taoism, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Baha’i Faith. Some members of indigenous groups practice animism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and requires the state to contribute to its maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not undermine “universal morality or proper behavior.” Unlike other religious groups, the Catholic Church is not registered as an association and receives special legal recognition. Its assets and holdings are governed consistent with Catholic canon law.

The constitution recognizes the right to practice the religion of one’s choice. By law, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may file suit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and may also file a motion before the Constitutional Chamber to have a statute or regulation declared unconstitutional. Additionally, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may appeal to the Administrative Court to sue the government for alleged discriminatory acts. Legal protections cover discrimination by private persons and entities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion is responsible for managing the government’s relationship with the Catholic Church and other religious groups. According to the law, a group with a minimum of 10 persons may incorporate as an association with judicial status by registering with the public registry of the Ministry of Justice. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, religious groups must register if they choose to engage in any type of fundraising. Registration also entitles them to obtain legal representation and standing to own property.

The constitution forbids Catholic clergy from serving in the capacity of president, vice president, cabinet member, or Supreme Court justice. This prohibition does not apply to non-Catholic clergy.

An executive order provides the legal framework for religious organizations to establish places of worship. Religious organizations must submit applications to the local municipality to establish a place of worship and to comply with safety and noise regulations established by law.

According to the law, public schools must provide nonsectarian Christian religious instruction by a person who is able to promote moral values and tolerance and be respectful of human rights. If a parent on behalf of a child chooses to opt out of religious courses, the parent must make a written request. The Ministry of Public Education provides assistance for religious education to private schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, including directly hiring teachers and providing teacher salaries and other funds.

The law allows the government to provide land free of charge to the Catholic Church only. Government-to-church land transfers are typically granted through periodic legislation.

Only Catholic priests and public notaries may perform state-recognized marriages. Wedding ceremonies performed by other religious groups must be legalized through a civil union.

Immigration law requires foreign religious workers to belong to a religious group accredited for migration control purposes by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, and it stipulates religious workers may receive permission to stay at least 90 days, but not more than two years. The permission is renewable. To obtain accreditation, a religious group must present documentation about its organization, including its complete name, number of followers, bank information, number of houses of worship, and names of and information on the group’s board of directors. Immigration regulations require religious workers to apply for temporary residence before arrival.

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

Government Practices

The TSE rejected an accusation of political hostility that an individual filed against the Conference of Catholic Bishops in February. On January 6, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a message stating the importance of participating in the electoral process and reaffirming the importance of elections for a strong democracy. The TSE concluded that the January 6 message did not violate the legal prohibition against introducing religious criteria in politics and did not affect the fundamental rights of voters because the Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed no clear preference for a candidate or particular political position.

A draft 2019 bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state remained on the Legislative Assembly’s plenary agenda, but at year’s end, legislators had not reviewed it. In June, Catholic bishops, with the support of the Evangelical Alliance, stated their opposition to the proposal to remove Catholicism as the official state religion in the constitution, stating the removal of an official state religion would remove all reference to religion, transforming the country into a secular state and eroding religious freedom.

Some non-Catholic leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding registration processes. Members of Protestant groups registered as secular associations continued to state they preferred a separate registration that would specifically cover church construction and operation, permits to organize events, and pastoral access to hospitals and prisons for members of non-Catholic religious groups. In the case of the Catholic Church, the government continued to address such concerns through the special legal recognition afforded the Church under canon law.

The Constitutional Chamber received 24 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at educational institutions, Catholic institutions, or public places, compared with 10 claims in 2019. The court dismissed 19 claims due to insufficient evidence proving discrimination or because it found no basis for claiming discrimination. In the majority of these cases, the claimants stated they experienced discrimination because of the government’s closure of places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic and because of a pandemic-related restriction limiting the number of attendees at a religious service to 75 worshippers, regardless of the size of the venue. The court dismissed the complaints, stating the pandemic-related restrictions were applied to all places of worship for reasons of health and sanitation. The chamber ruled in favor of five other claims; in two of the cases, members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church filed a complaint seeking authorization to observe their Sabbath on Saturdays. In another case, the chamber ruled in favor of three claimants, stating employees could not be required to attend an LGBTI sensitization course in order to assume new responsibilities or continue in their current positions.

The government again included financial support for the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups in its annual budget. It earmarked approximately 55 million colones ($90,300), 45.9 million colones ($75,400) for the Catholic Church and 9 million colones ($14,800) for evangelical Christian groups, for various projects requested by the religious groups, including funds to make improvements at churches and parish buildings in different parts of the country. This funding for religious groups was included in a supplemental budget for the year, and compares with 72.7 million colones ($119,000) earmarked in the 2019 budget. A semiautonomous government institution again sold lottery tickets and used the proceeds to support social programs sponsored by both Catholic and non-Catholic religious groups.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, there was no implementation of a 2019 Ministry of Education directive stating school directors should make decisions on whether to place religious images in educational institutions based on “mutual respect for the rights and liberties of all, as well as the values and principles under which the education system functions.” At the time, the director of religious education in the Ministry of Education stated he objected to the directive because the criteria were too subjective and broad and would have a chilling effect on school directors displaying any religious material.

The place of religion in the electoral process continued to be a subject of much public discussion. Representatives from political parties that defined themselves as evangelical Christian filled 14 of the country’s 57 legislative seats, and evangelical Christian parties contested the February municipal election. No evangelical Christian mayors were elected, but 38 evangelical Christians were elected as representatives in 82 municipal governments. The president of the Evangelical Alliance again instructed pastors to refrain from electoral politics, while Catholic leaders defended the right of the Catholic Church to engage in the political process.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Evangelical Alliance, continued to state their opposition to same-sex partnerships, citing moral grounds. A Constitutional Court ruling published in November, 2018 held that the Legislative Assembly must pass legislation affirmatively recognizing same-sex partnerships before May, 2020. In May, the Legislative Assembly passed legislation affirmatively recognizing same-sex partnership. The law went into effect on May 26. A group of legislators, including members of the evangelical Christian party Nueva Republica, attempted to pass a bill in September that would regulate civil unions while prohibiting same-sex marriages, but they were unsuccessful.

Abortion also continued to be a frequent topic of public debate involving religious groups. According to a December, 2019 technical disposition (executive order) requiring hospitals to develop protocols for doctors to perform an abortion when the life and health of the woman was in danger signed by President Carlos Alvarado and the Minister of Health, the therapeutic interruption of pregnancy in cases where the life or health of the woman is in danger was allowed, in accordance with the penal code. All private and public hospitals developed their own protocols to comply with the new order, which also accorded the right to health personnel to refuse to participate in abortion procedures for religious reasons. Reaction from the Catholic Church to the therapeutic abortions was negative. According to media, in December, the Costa Rican bishops said, “We believe this protocol goes beyond article 121 of the penal code, and that this approval would make abortions a right. As we have stated on several occasions, this “technical norm” leaves the unborn child defenseless throughout the pregnancy.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to UCR polling, the demographic shift to fewer adherents of the Catholic Church continued. Approximately half of those who left the Catholic Church joined evangelical Christian groups, while the other half gave up religious affiliation altogether.

Catholic leaders noted during the year they again received a significant increase in requests from members seeking to formally disaffiliate with the Catholic Church, including removal from baptism ledgers, because of their disagreements with the Church on social policy.

In contrast with 2019, the Israelite Zionist Center of Costa Rica reported remarks on social media regarding Israel posted by anonymous users, some of which they considered anti-Semitic. In August, the Israelite Zionist Center of Costa Rica reported it was conducting a pilot project called “Antidiscrimination Web Observatory,” which compiles anti-Semitic incidents and messages from social networks.

A personal project at the Museum of Empathy begun by an Interludio leader became a permanent exhibition of the history of the different ethnic and religious minorities settled in the country, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and directors from the country’s other museums. During the year, the Museum of Empathy promoted a Resilience Academy, which provided psychological and spiritual support to populations especially vulnerable due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the elderly and on single mothers. The academy held its first session in July.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the situation of churches under the pandemic, and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the free exercise of religious beliefs, with responsible officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On October 5, embassy officials hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education and leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities, and other religious groups to discuss religious freedom and their members’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The embassy also provided funding to the Museum of Empathy-coordinated Resilience Academy, which provided psychological and spiritual support to those especially vulnerable due to the pandemic.

The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages highlighting tolerance and respect for religious diversity to religious groups on special religious occasions. Examples included messages sent to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the evangelical Christian celebration of Month of the Bible, and the Catholic commemoration of the Day of the Virgin of Los Angeles.

Ecuador

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals the right to choose, practice, and change religions; it prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the legal system. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government; failure to do so can result in the group’s dissolution and liquidation of its physical property. Multiple religious leaders continued to express concern regarding the 2019 administrative consolidation of religious affairs issues within the Human Rights Secretariat, stating the change had improved the registration process but reduced a religious group’s ability to advocate its interests before the government. Religious leaders said the registration processing time decreased from six-month delays in 2019 to an average 30-day wait. On September 1, the human rights ombudsman ruled in favor of a group of COVID-19 victims’ relatives, stating authorities had infringed on the freedom of worship during the pandemic outbreak by misplacing or losing several remains and thus preventing religious traditions regarding burial customs from taking place as prescribed. Religious leaders said the National Assembly made no progress on the proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that the interfaith National Council on Religious Freedom and Equality (CONALIR), which includes representatives from Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical and nonevangelical Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh-day Adventist Church faith communities, first discussed with the National Assembly in 2018. Jewish and Muslim leaders said general customs regulations continued to hinder their ability to import products for use in religious festivals. Religious leaders expressed opposition to a health reform law the National Assembly passed on August 25, but which President Lenin Moreno vetoed on September 25. Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders asked the President to reject the law because of a provision requiring medical doctors to provide emergency care to women who had begun an abortion or had complications from an abortion to protect the mother’s life. Two cases involving Seventh-day Adventist students remained pending in the court system; both involved the refusal of two different universities to accommodate the students’ requests to observe Saturday, the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath.

Some Catholic and Protestant leaders said COVID-19 infection fears sparked social media disinformation about places of worship being epicenters for COVID-19 contagion. Several religious leaders expressed concern regarding what they considered a rise in secularism and societal discouragement of their participation in important legal and cultural discussions. A Muslim leader said a common societal view was that Muslims were foreigners, with some individuals saying Muslims should “return to their countries,” even though they were citizens or residents.

U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with officials in the Ministry of Government to discuss the registration process for religious groups, government promotion and protection of religious freedom, and other related human rights. A senior embassy official hosted an October 15 roundtable with religious leaders to discuss challenges facing their communities. The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 29 with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and their communities’ response to COVID-19. Embassy officials spoke with representatives from CONALIR to encourage continued interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Latinobarometro’s 2018 public opinion survey, approximately 92 percent of Ecuadorian respondents have a specific religious affiliation or belief: 74.8 percent identify as Catholic; 15.2 percent as evangelical; and 1.2 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Approximately 1.4 percent identify as members of other specific religious groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jews, and other evangelical and nonevangelical Protestants. Of the remaining respondents, 0.8 identify as atheists, while 6.1 percent have no religion.

Some groups, particularly those in the Amazon region, combine indigenous beliefs with Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism. Pentecostals draw much of their membership from indigenous persons in the highland provinces. There are Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country, with the highest concentrations in coastal areas. Buddhist, Church of Jesus Christ, Jewish, and Muslim populations are primarily concentrated in large urban areas, particularly Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca. Other religious groups include Anglicans, Baha’is, Episcopalians, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Greek Orthodox-affiliated Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America, Hindus, followers of Inti (the traditional Inca sun god), and practitioners of Santeria (primarily resident Cubans). Estimates of the number of followers of these groups are not available.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants all individuals the right to practice and profess publicly and freely the religion of their choice and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states the government has a responsibility to “protect voluntary religious practice, as well as the expression of those who do not profess any religion and will favor an atmosphere of plurality and tolerance.” Individuals have the right to change their religion. The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the country’s legal system. The constitution grants the right of self-determination to indigenous communities, including provisions granting freedom to “develop and strengthen their identity, feeling of belonging, ancestral traditions, and form of social organization.”

A 1937 concordat with the Holy See accords juridical status to the Catholic Church and grants it financial privileges and tax exemptions. Other religious groups must register as legal entities with the government under a separate 1937 religion law and a 2000 decree on religion. If a religious group wishes to provide social services, it must register under a 2017 executive decree regulating civil society. The 2017 decree dictates how civil society organizations (CSOs) must register to obtain and maintain legal status. A religious group does not need to register as a religious organization to register as a CSO and may conduct the processes separately.

By law, the Ministry of Government’s Human Rights Secretariat oversees religious issues, including the registration process for religious groups and CSOs. The Human Rights Secretariat maintains national databases of legally recognized religious organizations and legally recognized CSOs, including religious groups that have registered as CSOs. Registration provides religious groups with legal and nonprofit status. An officially registered religious group, whether as a religious organization or as a CSO, is eligible to receive government funding and exemptions from certain taxes per the tax code.

To register as a religious organization, a group must present a charter signed by all of its founding members to the Human Rights Secretariat and provide information on its leadership and physical location. Registrants may deliver their documentation to the Human Rights Secretariat directly, to one of the secretariat’s eight regional offices, or via email. The registration process is free of charge. The Office of Religious Groups within the Human Rights Secretariat then assigns an expert to analyze the submitted documentation.

To register as a CSO, religious groups require the same documentation as required for registration as a religious organization, in addition to approved statutes and a description of the mission statement and objectives of the organization. A religious group registers as a CSO under the government agency overseeing the issues on which the group wishes to work.

The secretariat may dissolve a religious group if the group does not maintain legal status or does not adhere to the mission, goals, and objectives listed in its bylaws at the time of registration. Dissolution may include liquidation of physical property and be voluntary – in which case, the religious group could decide to whom to transfer its property – or forced, in which case the Human Rights Secretariat would confiscate the group’s property. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, a separate entity from the Human Rights Secretariat, protects and advocates for human rights, including rights pertaining to religious groups; however, its role in this regard is not clearly defined in the constitution.

The labor law states that in general all work must be paid and does not distinguish religious workers from other types of workers. A citizen participation law recognizes volunteerism and states social organizations may establish agreements with government authorities to employ unpaid labor. The law, however, does not specifically reference religious volunteerism as a category to be utilized to establish such an agreement.

Foreign missionaries and religious volunteers must apply for a temporary residence visa and present a letter of invitation from the sponsoring organization, which may be foreign or domestic but must have legal status in the country, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The letter must include a commitment to cover the applicant’s living expenses and detail the applicant’s proposed activities. Applicants also must provide a certified copy of the bylaws of the sponsoring organization and the name of its legal representative as approved by the government.

The law prohibits public schools from providing religious instruction. Private schools may offer religious instruction but must comply with Ministry of Education standards. There are no legal restrictions specifying which religious groups may establish schools.

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

Government Practices

Multiple religious leaders continued to express concern regarding the 2019 administrative consolidation of religious affairs issues within the Ministry of Government. Religious leaders said that while administrative procedures such as registration had improved, the loss of a vice ministry portfolio in the former Ministry of the Interior (now the Ministry of Government) dedicated to religious matters that could advocate on their behalf had reduced religious groups’ influence on public policy.

Religious leaders reported fewer issues concerning the Human Rights Secretariat’s registration process compared with 2019. Many leaders said the new online system implemented in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to expand in the country, reduced the number of problems registering. According to a Human Rights Secretariat official, 5,007 religious groups registered during the year, compared with 4,812 groups registered in 2019. Another secretariat official said there were approximately 200 pending registrations and that the registration processing time averaged 30 days, compared with reported six-month delays in 2019.

Religious leaders continued to express concerns about the absence of a specific reference to religious volunteerism in the labor code, which they felt exposed religious organizations to potential negative legal consequences. Religious leaders stated that the government expected religious organizations to define specific working hours for staff and pay them according to those hours, which, they said, presented a problem, since many staff viewed their religious vocation as a way of life requiring them to be available at all times to meet the needs of their congregation.

Jewish and Muslim leaders said customs regulations, import taxes, and onerous paperwork continued to hinder their ability to import kosher and halal foods, beverages, and plants used for religious ceremonies and holidays. A Jewish leader said the law did not recognize the needs of religious communities to import special products. He also said the law treated religious communities the same as companies because all imports, including those for religious purposes, were taxed and treated as commercial items.

On September 1, the Human Rights Ombudsman ruled in favor of a group of COVID-19 victims’ relatives, stating authorities had infringed on their freedom of worship during the pandemic outbreak by misplacing or losing several remains, and thus preventing traditional burial practices from taking place as prescribed. Religious leaders, however, said authorities were helpful in providing the requisite permission for religious groups to deliver food kits and other humanitarian assistance. Religious leaders also said they coordinated closely with national authorities to ensure health and safety protocols were followed in the staged reopening of in-person religious practices.

Religious leaders said the National Assembly made no progress on a proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that CONALIR discussed with the National Assembly in 2018, in part due to COVID-19-related restrictions on meetings. CONALIR’s proposed reforms had aimed to create greater equality between the Catholic Church and other religious groups, to update the registration process for religious groups, and to recognize legally the nonprofit status of all religious groups and the practice of utilizing volunteers for certain activities.

In August, the Constitutional Court heard a case filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses that had been accepted for review in 2014, but it did not rule on the case by year’s end. The case involved a conflict in the town of San Juan de Iluman in Imbabura Province between Jehovah’s Witnesses who wanted to build a new Kingdom Hall and indigenous residents who opposed it.

Religious leaders expressed opposition to a health reform law the National Assembly passed on August 25, but which President Moreno vetoed on September 25. Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders asked the President to reject the law because of a provision requiring medical doctors to provide emergency care to women who had begun an abortion or had complications from an abortion in order to protect the mother’s life. The Catholic Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference and the Catholic Church’s Conference of Bishops said the bill forced physicians to intervene in obstetric emergencies without the “right to conscientious objection.” Catholic Church leadership in the country also rejected an article in the bill requiring public health facilities to offer access to high-quality, safe, and effective contraceptive methods, and it issued a statement that the bill “approved the indiscriminate use of contraceptives by minors without parental consent.”

A case filed by a Seventh-day Adventist remained pending with the Constitutional Court at year’s end. The case involved the 2018 refusal by the University of Guayaquil to accommodate a student’s request to observe Saturday, the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath. A provincial court ordered the school to accommodate the student’s request in 2019, but the university appealed the decision. In 2019, the Constitutional Court found the university’s appeal admissible, but the case remained pending at year’s end.

In February, a Seventh-day Adventist student represented by the human rights ombudsman presented a separate case against the University of Cuenca. The student stated that he had requested to take an exam originally scheduled for a Saturday on a different day so that he could observe the Sabbath. When the university did not respond to the student’s request, he filed a case before a provincial court, where it remained pending at year’s end.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Several religious leaders expressed concern regarding what they considered a rise in secularism and societal discouragement of their participation in important legal and cultural discussions. According to a Jewish leader, moral and ethical education tended to be relegated to religious leaders, whereas, he said, moral and ethical education should be the responsibility of all members of society.

Some religious leaders also spoke about the spread of disinformation on social media that depicted places of worship as epicenters for COVID-19 infection.

A Muslim leader said a common and longstanding societal view was that Muslims were foreigners, with some individuals saying Muslims should “return to their countries,” even though they were citizens or residents.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the registration process for religious groups with the Ministry of Government’s Human Rights Secretariat.

On October 15, a senior embassy official hosted a roundtable with religious leaders in Quito to discuss challenges facing their communities and their role in working toward economic and social recovery during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders from Baha’i, Catholic, the Church of Jesus Christ, evangelical and nonevangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox communities participated. Embassy officials also spoke with representatives from CONALIR, an interfaith group established in 2018 to encourage the continuation of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 29 to learn more about religious issues in coastal communities, including registration requirements, access to prisons, and religious communities’ response to COVID-19. Leaders from Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical and nonevangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities attended the event.

The embassy and consulate general used social media platforms to highlight International Religious Freedom Day, religious roundtable discussions with representatives from various religious communities, and other efforts to promote social inclusion of religious groups and religious diversity.

Throughout the year, embassy and consulate general officials met with leaders of Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical and nonevangelical Protestant, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America communities to discuss religious liberty and societal respect for religious diversity.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states all persons are equal before the law. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration. Some clergy and faith-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers said police and other government agents continued to arbitrarily detain, question, or search young congregants and youth leaders because of their ministry work with active and former gang members. According to sources, while many religious communities focused on education and youth development programs, particularly in the area of violence prevention, intimidation of religious individuals did not appear to be intended as persecution based on their religion. During the year, President Nayib Bukele, of Palestinian background, continued to be the target of anti-Muslim commentary, mainly on Twitter, by some of his political opposition. On September 11, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 133 years and four months in prison for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuit priests at the Central American University. On October 29, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court in El Salvador dismissed the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes for their alleged roles in those killings. According to press reports, this ruling favored former President Alfredo Cristiani, accused of being an intellectual author of the killings.

On February 7, the daily newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported the First Sentencing Court of Sonsonate sentenced Abraham Mestizo, a former sacristan accused of killing Catholic priest Cecilio Perez Cruz, to 25 years in prison for aggravated homicide. Although a letter found near the priest’s body suggested that the MS-13 gang had killed the priest for not paying extortion fees, the court ruled out any gang involvement. On September 9, unknown assailants killed three men who were praying near the Cristo Te Llama Church, an evangelical Protestant church in San Martin, San Salvador Department. Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian groups continued to report that members of their churches could not reach their respective congregations due to fear of gang crime and violence. According to widespread media reports, gang activity continued to create security concerns at a national level, which affected the general population, including members of religious groups, but was not based on religious discrimination.

During a meeting with the ombudsman for human rights on October 9, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation. The Ambassador tweeted in support of International Religious Freedom Day on October 27. In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups during the year, embassy officials continued to discuss the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories, and they stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a January survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 41.3 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, 37.2 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 18 percent with no religious affiliation. Approximately 2.8 percent state “other,” which includes Anglican Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. A small segment of the population adheres to indigenous religious beliefs, with some mixing of these beliefs with Christianity and Islam. Muslim leaders estimate there are approximately 20,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for violation of the free exercise of religion.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects. The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma. Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention. Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years.

The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of President, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions. Members of the clergy may not belong to political parties. The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.

A 2014 law restricts support of and interaction with gangs, including by clergy members, and a 2016 law defines gangs as terrorist organizations. Rehabilitation programs and ministry activities for gang members, however, are legal.

The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government. It grants automatic official recognition to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements and from government financial oversight. Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship. To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) in the Ministry of Governance. The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, functions of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues. The DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law. Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette. The DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.

By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of NGOs and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution. Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas. Religious groups must be registered in order to be eligible for their members to receive this special residence visa for religious activities.

Public education, as funded by the government, is secular and there is no religious education component. The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support or funding. Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools. Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion. All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.

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

Government Practices

Some clergy and faith-based NGO workers said police and other government agents continued to arbitrarily detain, question, or search young congregants and youth leaders because of their ministry work with active and former gang members. According to these observers, there was no indication the government actions were motivated by discrimination based on religious beliefs, but rather, because of the close interaction of some religious groups with gangs. Some religious leaders stated they continued to avoid violence-prevention programs and rehabilitation efforts, fearing prosecution or being perceived as sympathetic to gangs, even though courts had ruled that rehabilitation efforts were not illegal under the constitution. A religious worker operating a youth center in a neighborhood with heavy gang presence said she closed down a project working with gang members due to complications with the police. Although they said it was not an issue of religious discrimination, clergy again said police sometimes mistakenly detained young congregants and youth leaders from several Christian denominations as suspected gang members.

According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 122 requests for registration of religious groups during the year. Of these, the ministry approved 53, and 69 were pending at year’s end. Government officials said the COVID-19 pandemic caused the decline in requests and approvals of registrations because several officials from the ministry teleworked and did not have access to all of the relevant documents. Furthermore, the ministry prioritized its focus on the pandemic. The Ministry of Governance reported that although the registration process was available electronically, many religious groups did not present the required documents in a timely manner. According to the ministry, delays in registration approvals occurred because religious groups were first required to obtain legal entity documentation and the paperwork they submitted to the ministry was incorrect or incomplete.

In some prisons, the government continued to encourage religious organizations to work with prisoners to persuade them to renounce gang life. The government also continued to consult with, and jointly implement rehabilitation and reinsertion programs with, faith-based organizations.

On February 24, former Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) President Gustavo Lopez described President Bukele as a Muslim, tweeting, “Why does the President attack his adversaries? As a Muslim (I respect freedom of religion!) he believes himself to be the sultan or emperor of his clan (his followers) he will protect them even if they are inept; the rest of us are infidels (not pure). He attacks, lies, and wants to burn us alive!! Watch out.” The tweet was a reference to a rumor Bukele’s political opposition circulated during the 2019 presidential election campaign, reportedly in an effort to damage his credibility, by claiming Bukele had lied when he said he adhered to no specific religious affiliation.

On May 22, ARENA legislator Ricardo Velasquez Parker also linked President Bukele to the rumor of his being Muslim, tweeting, “Christians in El Salvador are the majority and we have been exhorted by preachers to have a personal relationship with Jesus our Lord, praying at all times. We are not Muslims, nor will we celebrate #RAMADAN tomorrow, Saturday, May 23, even if Nayib Bukele decrees it.” President Bukele had decreed May 24 as a National Day of Prayer, asking for voluntary prayers “for God to heal our land and allow us to defeat the pandemic that is hitting the entire world.”

Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain with an outstanding arrest warrant for the killing Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass, remained a fugitive. On March 4, the Fourth Investigative Court in El Salvador heard the testimony of Spanish lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, who had previously testified in 2004 against Saravia Merino in a civil judgment in Fresno, California. Bernabeu said witness testimony from the 2004 trial established that Saravia Merino and three others participated in a meeting to plan the killing of Archbishop Romero. At year’s end, the case remained pending.

On September 11, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 133 years and four months in prison (26 years, eight months, and one day for each killing) for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuits at the Central American University in San Salvador. Because the five Jesuits were Spanish citizens, two human rights organizations filed a case in a Spanish court in 2008 against former President Cristiani and 20 military members. The Spanish court said the killings “were contrived, planned, agreed to, and ordered by members of the high command of the Armed Forces, a body to which Montano belonged as Deputy Minister of Public Security.” The Audencia Nacional did not include former President Cristiani in this trial because the government of El Salvador refused to extradite him to Spain. The case against Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the Jesuit killings remained pending in the Supreme Court at year’s end.

On October 29, La Prensa Grafica reported the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court dismissed the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes, accused of being the intellectual authors of the 1989 killings and denied the possibility of a new trial. According to press reports, this ruling favored former President Cristiani in the pending case for his alleged role in the killings.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, authorities did not prosecute anyone under the penal code for publicly offending or insulting the religious beliefs of others, compared with one prosecution in 2018, which remained under investigation. On October 9, the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights again reported it did not receive notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In August, Catholic priest Ricardo Antonio Cortez was shot and killed while driving on a road in the southeastern part of the country. While the reason behind the killing was unknown, there was no indication it was a robbery, and press reported that priests believed his killing could have been an effort to intimidate the Catholic Church.

On February 7, La Prensa Grafica reported the First Sentencing Court of Sonsonate sentenced Abraham Mestizo, a former sacristan accused of killing Catholic priest Cecilio Perez Cruz, to 25 years in prison for aggravated homicide. In May 2019, Perez Cruz was found dead inside the parish house in San Jose de la Majada, in Juayan Municipality, Sonsonate Department. Although a letter found near the priest’s body suggested that MS-13 had killed the priest for not paying extortion fees, the court ruled out any gang involvement, stating Mestizo had written the letter to mislead authorities.

At a March 29 press conference marking the two-year anniversary of the 2018 detention and killing of Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez while he was en route to Mass, Archbishop of San Salvador Jose Luis Escobar Alas called for clarity and justice on the case from the Attorney General’s Office and the National Civilian Police (PNC). On August 8, the international news agency EFE reported authorities had not detained any suspects.

On September 9, unknown assailants killed three men who were praying near the Cristo Te Llama (Christ Calls You) Church, an evangelical Protestant church in San Martin, San Salvador Department. According to the newspaper El Diario de Hoy, two of the victims were allegedly former 18th Street gang members. The church’s congregation included many retired gang members, and the parishioners said the victims frequently attended the church.

Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and leaders of other Christian denominations continued to state clergy sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 (also known as 18th Street) gang-controlled territory throughout the country due to fear of crime and violence. According to media reports, NGOs, and law enforcement representatives, individuals not associated with religious groups also faced the same fears and limitations while transiting gang-controlled areas. Across the country, gang members continued to control access in and around communities, and there were reports they displaced church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations. Pastors reported that congregants, as was the case with the general population, sometimes could not attend religious services if they had to cross ever-shifting gang boundaries. Pastors said both MS-13 and Barrio 18 continued to stop strangers, examine their national identification cards, verify the address, and deny access to anyone they considered to be an outsider.

According to law enforcement representatives, gang members continued to extort organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, demanding payments in exchange for allowing them to operate in some territories. Reports of criminals targeting churches, stealing religious relics and other valuable cultural items, and violently assaulting parishioners continued.

On January 18, La Prensa Grafica reported two women entered the Nuestra Senora de Dolores Church in the city of Izalco, Sonsonate Department, sedated a sacristan, and stole an image of the baby Jesus from the main altar. According to church leaders, the 106-year-old image was of cultural value, and it was the third robbery in less than a month. Authorities opened an investigation into the incident.

According to La Prensa Grafica, the PNC dismantled a methamphetamine laboratory operated by MS-13 gang members in Mejicanos, San Salvador Department. The gang members manufactured the drugs in homes disguised as churches in efforts to mislead the PNC.

Media reported, and religious leaders also stated, former gang members who joined evangelical Protestant churches gained both gang respect and endorsement, because religious devotion was a way out of gang membership from which there was otherwise no exit. According to law enforcement representatives, gang membership was previously understood to be a lifelong commitment; however, through religious devotion and the structure, acceptance, and support of a church, some gang leaders appeared to have respected the decision of some members to leave the gang. In these cases, gang leaders reportedly monitored the former gang members to ensure they were routinely attending church services. Law enforcement representatives reported some gangs began forcing these former gang members to return to the criminal structure despite their religious practice, but this change was likely localized and determined by each gang clique in control of specific territories. According to law enforcement representatives, the gangs used death threats to these former gang members or threats to their family to force their return to the gang.

In June, according to a press statement, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of El Salvador condemned social media attacks, primarily from supporters of the President, on Cardinal Gregorio Chavez for his calling for greater dialogue among government representatives and transparency in the management of funds used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to media, Cardinal Chavez called for dialogue because disagreement between the President and the General Assembly had led to the expiration of COVID-19 restrictions while confirmed cases were rising in the country. Social media postings called Cardinal Chavez a traitor and corrupt for having criticized the President and for purportedly having taken the side of the private sector against the government and the people. In their statement, the bishops said they considered the social media attacks on Cardinal Chavez to be attacks on the Church as well.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 11th annual study of restrictions on religion, issued in November but covering 2018, El Salvador had the largest increase in social hostilities among countries in the Americas. The social hostilities index measured acts of religious hostility by private individuals and societal organizations or groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 9, embassy officials discussed with the ombudsman for human rights the importance of government officials carrying out their duties to protect the rights of all individuals, including religious freedom, regardless of the officials’ personal religious affiliation or beliefs. On October 27, the Ambassador tweeted, “Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and a human right,” and in support of International Religious Freedom Day, he called for an end to religious persecution.

During the year, embassy officials met with religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Anglican Episcopalian, and Catholic Churches, as well as the Baha’i Faith, to discuss religious freedom issues and the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories. Embassy officials stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Mexico

Executive Summary

The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. The constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Affairs (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero and mostly involved religious minorities. Government officials and leaders within the Catholic Church continued to state the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not attacks based on religion. According to media reports, in May, an indigenous community in the state of Chiapas expelled six evangelical Protestant families. Local community authorities arrested and jailed the families for not practicing Catholicism, according to the families. In October, media reported that local community leaders drove out 33 evangelical Protestants from a neighborhood of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, because they did not adhere to the community’s traditional faith. In July, the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, Jalisco. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism and are thus more vulnerable to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were two reported killings of evangelical Protestant pastors, and attacks and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported unidentified individuals killed two religious leaders and kidnapped three others. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified the country as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 12th year in a row, stating more than two dozen priests were killed over the past decade and emphasizing the ranking reflected the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups singled out Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to media, in March, demonstrators in several marches organized for International Women’s Day vandalized church buildings, public structures, and businesses.

Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised religious freedom and freedom of expression issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to these issues. In January, the Ambassador visited Colegio Israelita and gave brief remarks at its Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The Ambassador stressed the United States would continue to defend human rights as well as combat anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers focusing on humanitarian issues and expressed support for religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 128.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Mexican government’s 2020 census, the total population is approximately 126 million. According to the 2020 census, approximately 78 percent of the population identifies as Catholic (compared with 83 percent in 2010); 11 percent as Protestant/Christian Evangelical; and 0.2 percent as other religions, including Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Islam. More than 2.5 percent of the population report practicing a religion not otherwise specified (compared with more than 2 percent in 2010) and nearly 8.1 percent report not practicing any religion (compared with 5 percent in 2010). Some indigenous persons adhere to syncretic religions drawing from indigenous beliefs.

Official statistics based on self-identification during the 2010 census, the most recent available for detailed estimates on religious affiliations, sometimes differ from the membership figures stated by religious groups. Approximately 315,000 individuals identify themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Church of Jesus Christ officials, however, state their membership is approximately 1.5 million. There are large Protestant communities in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. In Chiapas, evangelical Protestant leaders state nearly half of the state’s 2.4 million inhabitants are members of evangelical groups and other Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists; however, fewer than 5 percent of 2010 census respondents in Chiapas self-identify as evangelical Protestant. There are also small numbers of followers of Luz del Mundo (LLDM), the Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), and the Church of Scientology, as well as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baha’is, and Buddhists. The 2010 census lists 5,346 Buddhists. According to media reports, there are 1.5 million followers of LLDM. According to a 2015 Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez report, there are 50,000 Methodists and 30,000 Anglicans in the country. According to the Baha’i Faith Facebook page, there are 12,000 Baha’is, with hundreds coming from small indigenous communities.

An estimated half of the country’s approximately 100,000 Mennonites are concentrated in the state of Chihuahua. According to the 2020 census, the Jewish community totals approximately 58,800 persons, with the vast majority living in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to the 2020 census, the Muslim community numbers 7,982 persons. According to SEGOB, nearly half of the country’s Muslims are concentrated in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. There is also an Ahmadi Muslim population of several hundred living in the state of Chiapas, most of whom are converts of ethnic Tzotzil Maya origin.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all persons have the right to follow or adopt the religion of their choosing, or not to follow a religion. This freedom includes the right to participate individually or collectively, both in public and in private, in ceremonies, devotions, and acts of worship if they do not constitute an offense otherwise prohibited by law. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Secularism is mentioned in three other articles, including one dedicated to education. Philosophical freedoms of conscience and religion receive equal treatment by the state. Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion. Religious acts of public worship should be held in places of worship. Individuals who conduct religious ceremonies outside of places of worship, which requires a permit, are subject to regulatory law. Active clergy may not hold public office, advocate partisan political views, support political candidates, or publicly oppose the laws or institutions of the state.

To establish a religious association, applicants must certify the church or other religious group observes, practices, propagates, or instructs a religious doctrine or body of religious beliefs; has conducted religious activities in the country for at least five years; has established domicile in the country; and shows sufficient assets to achieve its purpose. Registered associations may freely organize their internal structures and adopt bylaws or rules pertaining to their governance and operations, including the training and appointment of their clergy. They may engage in public worship and celebrate acts for the fulfillment of the association’s purpose lawfully and without profit. They may propagate their doctrine in accordance with applicable regulations and participate in the creation, management, maintenance, and operation of private welfare, educational, and health institutions, provided the institutions are not for profit.

Religious groups are not required to register with DGAR to operate. Registration is required to negotiate contracts, purchase or rent land, apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, or hold religious meetings outside of customary places of worship. A religious group registering for the first time may not register online; its representatives must register in person. Religious groups must apply for permits to construct new buildings or convert existing buildings into places of worship. Any religious building constructed after January 27, 1992, is the property of the religious group that built it and is subject to relevant taxes. All religious buildings erected before then are considered part of the national patrimony and owned by the state.

Religious associations must notify the government of their intention to hold a religious meeting outside their licensed place or places of worship. Religious associations may not hold political meetings of any kind or own or operate radio or television stations. Government permission is required for commercial radio or television to transmit religious programming.

The federal government coordinates religious affairs through SEGOB. Within SEGOB, DGAR promotes religious tolerance, conducts conflict mediation, and investigates cases of religious intolerance. If a party presents a dispute based on allegations of religious intolerance, DGAR may mediate a solution. Each of the 32 states has offices responsible for religious affairs. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.

The law provides that prisoners receive dignified and equal treatment from prison staff without distinction based on religious preferences.

The constitution requires that public education be secular and not include religious doctrine. Religious groups may operate private schools that teach religion and hold religious ceremonies at their schools. Private schools affiliated with a religious group are open to all students regardless of their religious beliefs. Students in private schools are exempt from participating in religious courses and activities if the students are not affiliated with the school’s religious group. Homeschooling is allowed at the secondary level after completion of schooling at an accredited primary school.

A visa category exists for foreign clergy and religious associates to obtain a temporary resident visa or visitor visa without permission to perform paid religious activities.

The constitution recognizes the right of indigenous communities to autonomy and codifies their right to use their own legal systems for the resolution of conflicts within their communities, while respecting human rights as defined in the constitution and the international treaties to which the country is a signatory. The constitution also protects the right of indigenous leaders to practice their own “uses and customs.” This right of self-governance for indigenous communities sometimes conflicts with other rights provided by the constitution, including freedom of religion, for members of those communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It claims both an interpretative statement and a reservation relating to freedom of religion in the covenant. Article 18 of the ICCPR states that countries may limit religious freedom only when it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The country’s interpretative statement states that religious acts must be performed in places of worship unless granted prior permission and that the education of religious ministers is not officially recognized.

Government Practices

DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero. Most of these cases involved religious minorities who stated members of the majority religious community where they lived had deprived them of their rights and basic services, including water and electricity. At year’s end, no updates were available on the cases. According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government because the federal government did not hold jurisdiction. Some NGOs stated municipal and state officials mediated disputes between religious groups, but government officials said this was not official practice. NGOs noted municipal and state officials frequently sided with local leaders at the expense of minority religions. Some groups also said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal mediated solutions. According to CSW, informal mediated solutions rarely led to change in the status quo and favored the majority religious group.

During the year, CONAPRED did not receive any complaints of religious discrimination, compared with four in 2019. According to some sources, cases of religious discrimination were often not reported due to lack of awareness of the filing process.

As of September, DGAR listed 9,558 registered religious associations, including an additional 94 groups registered in December 2019. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to COVID-19. Registered groups included 9,515 Christian, 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups as well as 14 new religious expression groups. According to DGAR, new religious expressions groups are philosophical or spiritual communities that might be born of new beliefs or be part of a broader religion; they are on the periphery of traditional religions.

According to media reports, on May 24, the indigenous community of San Jose Puerto Rico, Huixtan, in the state of Chiapas, expelled six evangelical Protestant families. The families said local community authorities arrested and jailed them for not practicing Catholicism. Following their arrests and release, the families abandoned their homes, belongings, and animals.

According to CSW, as of August, community members continued farming in their attempt to appropriate the land of one of four evangelical Protestant families forcibly displaced by community members of Cuamontax, in the state of Hidalgo, in July 2019. On June 15, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief made an inquiry of the government; on August 12, officials of the Mexican Permanent Mission to the United Nations acknowledged receipt of the inquiry and said they would relay it to relevant offices. As of year’s end, the government had not provided a substantive response.

NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that several rural and indigenous communities expected residents, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings and in some cases, to adhere to the majority religion. According to CSW’s 2020 report, some Protestant minority families from indigenous communities were denied access to crucial utilities, such as water and electricity, and some children were not allowed to attend local schools because their families did not adhere to the majority religion. In the state of Chiapas, 12 Protestants who were detained and then released in 2019 remained without access to water after declining to participate in Catholic festivities.

In July, the SCJN issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, in the state of Jalisco. In 2017, community members expelled the Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in Catholic community activities. The court decided the affected parties should reintegrate into the territory of their communities and ordered state authorities to guarantee their security. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different part of the territory and their prior community could continue to deny their “rights and obligations” as community members “as they no longer share an essential element, their religion.” The court ruling restored the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ access to housing and their personal belongings in the territory as well as the ability to make a living. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different plot of land within the territory because the indigenous community was allowed to exclude the Jehovah’s Witnesses from the rights and obligations they would enjoy as full community members. According to CSW, the SCJN’s ruling was the first to provide protection for indigenous persons whose rights were reportedly abused through an indigenous community’s legally protected “uses and customs.”

According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the goal of ensuring the exercise of religious freedom and resolving conflicts involving religious intolerance. In September 2019, SEGOB launched the National Strategy for the Promotion of Respect and Tolerance of Religious Diversity: We Create Peace. DGAR advanced the three main pillars of the strategy: dialogue, dissemination, and training to promote religious freedom. Through outreach, DGAR encouraged state and municipal directors to act as auxiliaries of DGAR and assist in resolving religious intolerance issues immediately to protect the human rights of minority religious group members. According to Jorge Lee Galindo, deputy director general in SEGOB’s Religious Issues Office, DGAR trained government employees and religious leaders on DGAR’s paperwork process during the year so they could access the services DGAR offers at the municipal and state levels.

Religions for Inclusion, a government-run interfaith working group, held several meetings to discuss gender-based violence, generalized violence, efforts to search for the disappeared, and COVID-19. The group regularly discussed their experiences with religious intolerance or discrimination. CONAPRED established Religions for Inclusion to create institutional dialogue to deepen its understanding of other faiths, build common ground, and coordinate collective action on issues involving shared social concerns. Members of the group included leaders of the Protestant, evangelical Christian, Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ, LLDM, Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Church of Scientology communities.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religious leaders were often involved in political and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being based on religious identity. The CMC identified the country as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 12th year in a row, stating that over two dozen priests were killed over the past decade and emphasizing the situation reflected the high levels of generalized violence in the country. According to some NGOs and media reports, organized crime groups continued to single out some Catholic priests and other religious leaders and subject them to killings, extortion attempts, death threats, kidnappings, and intimidation, reportedly due to their perceived access to financial resources or their work helping migrants. According to CSW, while the high levels of fear and lack of documentation made it difficult to assess the extent of criminal group harassment of and attacks on religious figures, both Catholic and Protestant leaders said the impact on religious freedom was “alarming.” Also according to CSW, some religious leaders said local and state police labeled the attacks and killings of religious leaders as “common crime,” rather than investigating the cases fully. Federal government officials and Catholic Church authorities continued to state that these incidents were not a result of religious beliefs, but rather were incidents related to the overall security situation and crime. According to NGO sources, criminal elements attacked Catholic priests and other religious figures to create fear in the community and a culture of silence, which allowed their acts, such as drug and weapons trafficking, to continue unhindered.

Multiple NGOs said religious leaders of varied denominations and religions were attacked, kidnapped, and threatened throughout the year, including the killings of two evangelical Christian pastors in two separate incidents. According to CSW, in May, individuals kidnapped a pastor in the state of Guanajuato, whom they killed after they did not receive ransom; no additional details regarding motive were available. According to press reporting, in August, perpetrators of a targeted home invasion killed a female leader of the Christian group New Order in the state of Chihuahua. No motive for the killing was apparent. Members of the New Order condemned the killing and called on the government to stop the violence and protect the community. According to the CMC, in January, a group of assailants kidnapped, tortured, and attempted to kill a Catholic priest, Father Roly Candelario Pina Camacho, in Puebla. Attackers shot him multiple times and abandoned him on the Puebla-Mexico City highway after family members paid a ransom. The priest sought help and survived. In April, Catholic priest Marcelo Perez, based in the state of Chiapas, received death threats by telephone, presumably from a cartel, according to media reports. According to Perez, the caller threatened not only him, but his family and his congregants if he did not “get in line” with the cartel’s demands. According to a church press release, the cartel threatened to massacre worshippers in the church. At year’s end, the CMC did not have record of any Catholic priests killed in the country during the year, compared with one Catholic priest killed in 2019.

According to the CMC, unidentified individuals burglarized, vandalized, and committed acts of violence against churches, with a weekly average of 27 Catholic churches affected throughout the year. Some of the incidents reportedly involved women seeking access to birth control and the legalization of abortion, which the Catholic Church opposes. According to media, on March 9, demonstrators in several marches organized for International Women’s Day vandalized church buildings, public structures, and businesses. The same day, a small group of protesters advocating support for abortion rights threw paint and flammable liquids at Mexico City’s cathedral. Small numbers of Catholic Church supporters tried to protect the cathedral. Protesters also vandalized Catholic churches in the states of Xalapa, Campeche, and Hermosillo.

Jewish community representatives assessed online anti-Semitic messages, symbols, and language from January through September 17, finding Twitter accounted for 69 percent of the anti-Semitic content, news sources 18 percent, online forums 8 percent, and blogs 4.5 percent. Anti-Semitic tweets typically referenced the Holocaust and Hitler, used other derogatory language, and questioned Israel’s right to exist.

In September, Volkswagen apologized after a customer visiting one of its showrooms tweeted a photograph of a World War II Nazi rally being addressed by Adolf Hitler, replete with a large swastika, hanging on the showroom’s walls. The tweet quickly went viral. The customer had photographed the image during a visit to the showroom, located in Coyoacan Municipality near Mexico City. In a letter to Steffen Reiche, the president of Volkswagen’s operations in Mexico, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre urged the company to cut ties with the dealership where the Nazi imagery was displayed. “We expect you to immediately identify those responsible and publicly announce the action you will take. The most appropriate would be to drop the concession completely to pass a clear message to your customers that you have learned from your history,” the letter stated.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 52 percent of Mexican respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it second of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

Religions for Peace, an interreligious working group, continued to be active in the country, conducting interfaith roundtables and outreach events. Member groups included the Jewish Communities of Mexico, Buddhist Community of Mexico, Sufi Yerrahi Community of Mexico, Sikh Dharma Community of Mexico, Anglican Church, Lutheran Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised these issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. U.S. officials raised concerns regarding the continued harassment of religious leaders and abuses against religious minorities, especially evangelical Protestants, by religious majority groups and local authorities.

The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In January, a senior embassy officer met with the president of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico and expressed appreciation for the committee’s work on anti-Semitism. In August, the Ambassador spoke to leaders of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico and learned more about the community’s response to COVID-19. In October, the Ambassador visited the Jewish Documentation and Investigation Center, where he highlighted the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.

In January, the Ambassador visited Colegio Israelita (Israelite School), a private kindergarten to 12th grade Jewish school in Mexico City, and gave brief remarks at its Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The Ambassador stressed the United States will continue to defend human rights as well as combat anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred.

Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers focusing on humanitarian issues, assess the status of religious freedom, and express support for religious tolerance.

Paraguay

Executive Summary

The constitution accords individuals the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion and prohibits religious discrimination. It specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religions freely. The constitution states the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on independence, cooperation, and autonomy. The Vice Ministry of Worship (VMW) continued to implement a law requiring all religious and philosophical groups to complete a mandatory registration process, but did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on groups that did not register by the end of 2019, extending the deadline until after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the VMW, approximately 15 percent of religious groups were registered at year’s end. In January, the VMW denied the registration of the Catholic Christian Apostolic National Church of Paraguay (ICCAN) due to its similarity in name with the Roman Catholic Church, although the VMW had approved ICCAN as a legal entity in 2019. In February, ICCAN appealed the VMW’s decision, leading to discussions with the VMW in an attempt to find a compromise that would allow for ICCAN’s registration. Discussions, however, were unsuccessful, and in November, the VMW rejected ICCAN’s appeal. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported that three cases involving individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving a hospital blood transfusion against their will remained pending in the courts at year’s end due to COVID-19 pandemic delays.

Some religious representatives said the Roman Catholic Church exercised more influence in politics by swaying public opinion than any other religious group. Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious groups expressed regret that they were not able to hold any in-person interfaith dialogues during the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 15, the Roman Catholic Church hosted a religious service to honor the country’s independence. Although Roman Catholic clergy were present for the service in person, all other attendees – among them, President Mario Abdo Benitez, other members of the government, and individuals from other religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jews, and evangelical Protestants – participated virtually. Evangelical Protestant leaders held two informal, in-person interdenominational dialogues with Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations in May and October. On November 20, the VMW hosted a virtual Interreligious Symposium on the Promotion of Peace Through the Practice of Values, open to all religious groups with a presence in the country.

In October, U.S. embassy officials met with VMW Director General Marco Mendez and discussed ICCAN’s registration status, government actions to facilitate the registration process, the promotion of religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and the provision of state funding for schools run by religious groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Mennonite, Church of Jesus Christ, Muslim, ICCAN, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jewish communities to discuss interfaith respect for religious diversity and hear their views on the status of religious freedom in the country and the government’s attitude towards and treatment of their communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The VMW estimates 88 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 6 percent evangelical Protestant. The Association of Evangelical Ministers of Paraguay estimates that 9.6 percent of the population is evangelical Protestant. Groups that together constitute between 1 and 4 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, the Church of Jesus Christ, Muslims, Buddhists, Mennonites, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’is, and adherents of indigenous beliefs.

Members of the Mennonite Church, estimated by Church leaders to number 46,000, are prominent in the remote areas of the central Chaco and some eastern regions of the country. ICCAN estimates its membership at more than 100,000. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates it has 70,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate the group’s membership at 12,000. According to Muslim leaders, there are approximately 10,000 Muslims, with the majority in Ciudad del Este. According to representatives of the Jewish community, there are approximately 1,000 Jews, living primarily in Asuncion.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides individuals, including members of indigenous communities, the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely.

According to the constitution, the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on “independence, cooperation, and autonomy.” The Church, however, must comply with all regulations the state imposes on other religious groups. The law allows political parties based on a specific faith, but the constitution prohibits active members of the clergy from any religious group from running for public office.

The law requires all religious and philosophical groups to register with the VMW and submit annual reports stating the organization’s key leadership and functions. Organizations must complete a form containing 14 items and provide supporting documents to the VMW to register. The form requests basic information, including entity name, mission or vision, history in the country, church or temple addresses, membership size, and types of activities. The VMW also requires the certification of a legal representative and the entity’s bylaws as supporting documentation for registration. VMW regulations require that names of religious entities be sufficiently distinguishable to avoid confusing worshippers. Once registered, religious and philosophical groups must update their registration on an annual basis and pay an annual fee of 62,000 guaranies ($9).

The VMW may apply nonmonetary administrative sanctions against organizations that fail to register, including ordering the suspension of religious services. The National Anti-Money Laundering Secretariat requires that all religious organizations register as nonfinancial agents. Religious groups must demonstrate legal status as a nonprofit organization and agree to annual recertification. Annual recertification requires groups to resubmit the registration form with updated information. Religious leaders must submit to financial and criminal background checks.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. The constitution provides private schools the right to offer religious education; staff teaching these courses are required to “possess suitability and ethical integrity.” Registration for private religious schools is not mandatory, but the Ministry of Education and Culture recognizes only diplomas and degrees granted by registered institutions. Additionally, only registered schools with nonprofit status may receive subsidies for teachers’ salaries. Students belonging to religious groups other than the one associated with a private religious school may enroll; however, all students are expected to participate in religious activities that are a mandatory part of the schedule.

The constitution and laws provide for conscientious objection to military service based on religious beliefs.

Foreign missionaries who are members of registered religious groups are eligible for no-cost residency visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They must also register annually with the VMW to receive official documentation identifying their status as missionaries. Missionaries choosing not to register may enter the country on tourist visas. A law provides for Mennonites to implement their own education programs and exempts them from military service based on their religious beliefs.

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

Government Practices

The VMW did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on religious groups that did not complete its mandatory registration process by the end of 2019, extending the deadline until after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. It continued to focus on raising public awareness of the registration law and at year’s end had not set a date for enforcing compliance. The VMW stated it continued to implement the registration law consistently across religious groups; once it received all required information and documents from a religious group, it completed the process in 15 days.

According to the VMW, 16 new groups registered during the year, bringing the total of religious groups having active registrations with the government to 576, compared with 560 at the end of 2019. Of the 576 groups, 440 were not able to renew their registration during the year due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting requisite travel to Asuncion. According to the VMW, however, it considered these groups to be actively registered because it extended the renewal period during the pandemic.

According to the VMW, approximately 15 percent of religious groups were registered at year’s end. Although the VMW implemented online registration in June, a major barrier for submitting and renewing applications was the requirement to travel to Asuncion to pay registration fees and pick up proof of registration.

Although ICCAN met all other legal requirements, which the VMW recognized in 2019, the VMW did not approve its registration due to its inclusion of “Catholic” in its title, making ICCAN’s name not sufficiently distinguishable from the Roman Catholic Church. The VMW stated there was no other reason for its decision and would approve ICCAN’s registration if the two religious groups could agree on an acceptable change to ICCAN’s official name. In February, ICCAN appealed the VMW’s decision, leading to discussions with the VMW in an attempt to find a compromise that would enable ICCAN’s registration. According to ICCAN, discussions were unsuccessful, and in November, the VMW rejected ICCAN’s appeal.

By year’s end, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported three cases from previous years involving individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving hospital blood transfusions against their will remained pending due to court processing delays during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association won an appeal in a forced blood transfusion case against the Social Security Institute in a court of second instance, but at year’s end, the association was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling after the Social Security Institute appealed the ruling. At year’s end, no judges were assigned to rule on the appeal. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association stated there were no new reports of forced blood transfusions during the year. According to the association, a potential incident in November, when a hospital requested authorization to perform a blood transfusion, became moot at the last minute because the hospital was able to apply an alternative treatment. Although association representatives said the outcome was favorable, they stated the case demonstrated hospitals did not respect their religious beliefs and the association would consider legal recourse.

The VMW reported the Ministry of Education provided subsidies to 494 schools during the year, of which 252 were Roman Catholic and 242 were of various other religious affiliations. The ministry stated it distributed subsidies based primarily on the need to reach certain underserved communities, focusing especially on the underserved rural Chaco region. The ministry continued to subsidize the salaries of hundreds of teachers in registered, nonprofit schools operated by predominantly Roman Catholic religious groups. According to representatives of the Mennonite community, the government continued to provide subsidies to their schools; Jewish community members said they did not request government subsidies. According to a ministry representative, the ministry maintained an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church governing the allocation of subsidies to schools in areas not served by public schools. The representative also stated that a separate agreement set very similar regulations for subsidy allocation to other religious schools located in underserved areas serving student populations and providing educational or scholarship services to students. Mennonite schools in Boqueron Department continued a consultation process with departmental authorities consisting of a continuous dialogue concerning Mennonite and Ministry of Education curricular priorities.

The VMW reported that 106 foreign missionaries registered or reregistered during the year, compared with 353 in 2019, a decrease observers attributed to COVID-19-related border closures that began in March and were still largely in place at the end of the year. Most missionaries were members of the Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant Churches. In March, all 114 foreign missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ departed the country on flights chartered by the Church due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government continued to support chaplaincy programs open to all religious groups in the armed forces. The programs included the training of clergy to provide services to members of the armed forces deployed either in combat zones or on peacekeeping missions. The government also continued to allow all registered religious groups to operate in and provide their services within prisons for adults and youth; however, during the year, only Roman Catholic and Protestant groups made use of this option.

On November 20, the VMW hosted a virtual National Interreligious Symposium on the Promotion of Peace Through the Practice of Values, open to all religious group with a presence in the country. Event goals included the promotion of peaceful coexistence, diversity, and interreligious dialogue. The VMW also used the event to increase awareness of the registration system for religious groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers, including those from nongovernmental organizations, political pundits, leaders of different religious groups, and the press, stated the Roman Catholic Church continued to maintain an influential role within society and government that gave it an advantage over other religious groups in the country. According to media reports, because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, both citizens and the government valued the opinion of the Church on political matters. Church representatives often commented publicly on congressional legislation, sometimes impacting the shaping of public policy. On December 5, Church statements that a proposed National Plan for Childhood and Adolescence for 2020-2024 would promote the destruction of conservative family values, which sources stated contributed to public and political criticism of the plan, eventually forcing Minister of Childhood and Adolescence Teresa Martinez to withdraw it for redrafting.

On May 15, the Roman Catholic Church hosted a service to honor the country’s independence. Although Church clergy performed the service in-person, all other attendees – including President Benitez, other members of the government, and individuals from other religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jews, and evangelical Protestants – participated virtually. During the service, the Roman Catholic Church criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling for an end to corruption that could jeopardize efforts to confront the virus, and for government assistance to be distributed fairly across vulnerable communities.

Roman Catholic Church representatives, in consultation with the Ministry of Health, canceled in-person services celebrating the December 8 “Virgen de Caacupe” holiday, a local variant of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, due to COVID-19 concerns. Although the Church announced that services would proceed virtually, many pilgrims traveled to Caacupe, prompting the Ministry of Health to impose movement restrictions in the city.

The Public Prosecutor’s Ethnic Rights Office reported it did not receive any reports of conflict between indigenous and nonindigenous religious groups by year’s end. The Public Prosecutor’s Office closed its investigation into the case of an evangelical Protestant pastor who exorcized an elderly indigenous shaman against his will in 2018 after the pastor admitted guilt. In accordance with a plea agreement between the defendant and the office, the pastor was allowed to continue leading his community, but under legal probation, with the possibility of prison time for a repeat offense. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, rather than the VMW, investigated the case because the indigenous religious leader said the pastor had also stolen items from him. According to media reports, the pastor belonged to the Pentecostal Church Prince of Peace, an unregistered church.

At year’s end, representatives of the local Jewish community said they continued to monitor a group known as Identidad Nacional (IN), formerly called Paraguay Nacional Socialista (PNS), that actively espoused Nazi and xenophobic ideology in 2016-2017 but had since either disappeared or gone underground. According to members of the Jewish community, IN did not attack any individuals or publish anti-Semitic statements during the year. Jewish community members said they had confidence in the security forces and the private security companies the community hired to protect places of worship, schools, and community centers.

Evangelical Protestant leaders held two in-person, informal, interdenominational dialogues with Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations in May and October. The dialogues promoted Christian religious diversity and mutual respect while addressing common challenges Paraguayans faced, such as the pandemic and drought. Evangelical Protestant leaders also conducted training sessions for pastors with the stated objective of helping make their sermons more inclusive and tolerant.

Christian and Jewish groups continued to communicate with representatives from other religious groups, but all official, in-person interreligious events were canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. These groups did not host any official virtual interreligious events during the year.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, embassy officials met with VMW Director General Mendez to discuss issues related to ICCAN’s registration process, government actions to facilitate the registration of other religious groups, the promotion of religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and the provision of state funding for salaries at schools run by religious groups.

Embassy officials met with Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Muslim, ICCAN, evangelical Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ, and Jewish leaders to discuss interfaith respect for religious diversity and hear their views on the state of religious freedom in the country and the government’s attitude towards and treatment of their communities.

Peru

Executive Summary

The constitution bars discrimination based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of conscience and religion, either individually or in association with others. It provides for the separation of religion and state but also recognizes the historic importance of the Roman Catholic Church. During the year, the government registered 156 non-Catholic groups, an increase from 148 in 2019. Among the newly registered groups were the Religious Association of the Good Seed of Majes, House of Prayer for All Nations, and Ministry of God’s Assemblies Abreu e Lima, all evangelical Protestant. In January, the People’s Agrarian Front of Peru (FREPAP), a political party founded by and directly affiliated to the Israelites of the New Universal Pact religious group, obtained 8.4 percent of the vote and 15 seats in congress, the largest congressional representation of a non-Catholic religious party in the country’s history. The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (MOJ) for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including tax exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains, all benefits for which the Catholic Church automatically qualifies but for which other religious groups must apply. The council continued to discuss the government’s religious freedom regulations, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Interreligious Council continued to promote respect, tolerance, and dialogue among different faith traditions, including through a virtual event on the International Day of Tolerance that highlighted respect for migrants, refugees, and displaced persons. Muslim and Jewish community members continued to state some public and private schools and employers occasionally required their members to use accumulated leave for non-Catholic religious holidays, including Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.

U.S. embassy officials continued to engage with government officials regarding religious freedom, and they discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to Venezuelan migrants in the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While restrictions related to COVID-19 made events and in-person outreach difficult, embassy officials engaged representatives of the Interreligious Council and encouraged religious groups to work together to provide humanitarian assistance to those most affected by the COVID-19 health emergency and its subsequent economic crisis, including Venezuelan migrants in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The 2017 national census reported the population as 76 percent Catholic (down from 81 percent in 2007); 14 percent Protestant (mainly evangelical Protestant, up from 13 percent in 2007); 5.1 percent nonreligious (up from 2.9 percent in 2007); and 4.9 percent other religious groups (up from 3.3 in 2007). The other religious groups include Israelites of the New Universal Pact (an evangelical Christian religious group of local origin that blends biblical and Andean religious beliefs, with an emphasis on communal farming life), Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, Orthodox Christians, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

According to the World Jewish Congress, approximately 3,000 Jews reside in the country, primarily in Lima, Cusco, and Iquitos. According to the Islamic Association of Peru, there are approximately 2,600 Muslims, 2,000 in Lima and 600 in the Tacna region. Lima’s Muslim community is approximately half Arab in origin and half local converts, while Tacna’s is mostly Pakistani. Most Muslims are Sunni.

Some indigenous peoples in the Andes and the Amazon practice traditional faiths. Many indigenous citizens from the Andes practice a syncretic faith, blending Catholicism and pre-Columbian beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination and persecution based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of religion, either individually or in association with others. It states every person has the right to privacy of religious conviction. It establishes the separation of religion and state but recognizes the Catholic Church’s role as “an important element in the historical, cultural, and moral foundation” of the country.

A concordat between the government and the Holy See signed in 1980 accords the Catholic Church certain institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers. A religious freedom law exempts Catholic Church buildings, houses, and other real estate holdings from property taxes. Other religious groups often must pay property taxes on their schools and clerical residences, depending on the municipal jurisdiction and whether the group seeks and/or receives tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization. The law exempts Catholic religious workers from taxes on international travel. The government also exempts all work-related earnings of Catholic priests and bishops from income taxes. A 2018 temporary exemption of these taxes for non-Catholic religious groups was in place through December 31. By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.

The MOJ is responsible for engaging with religious groups, through the Office of Catholic Church Affairs or the Office of Interconfessional Affairs (for all other religious groups).

Registration with the MOJ is optional and voluntary. The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government. Religious groups do not have to register to obtain institutional benefits, but doing so allows them to engage directly with the government. The regulations allow all religious groups, registered or not, to apply for tax exemptions and worker or resident visas directly with the pertinent government institutions. Registration is free, the process usually takes one week, and the MOJ helps in completing the application forms.

By law, all prisoners, regardless of their religious affiliation, may practice their religion and seek the ministry of someone of their same faith.

The law mandates all schools, public and private, to provide a course on religion through the primary and secondary levels, “without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.” Public schools teach Catholicism in religion class, and the Ministry of Education requires the presiding Catholic bishop of an area to approve the public schools’ religious education teachers. Parents may request the school principal to exempt their children from mandatory religion classes. The government may grant exemptions from the religious education requirement to secular and non-Catholic private schools. Non-Catholic children attending public schools are also exempt from classes on Catholicism. The law states schools may not academically disadvantage students seeking exemptions from Catholic education classes. According to a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling, government financing for schools run by religious groups is unconstitutional because it is “incompatible with the principle of secularism.” The ruling provides the state must suspend funding for these schools within a reasonable period or establish a general and secular system of subsidies for all private educational institutions regardless of their religious affiliation.

The law requires all employers to accommodate the religious days and holidays of all employees; this accommodation includes allowing an employee to use annual vacation leave for this purpose.

Foreign religious workers must apply for a visa through the National Superintendency for Migration (SNM) of the Ministry of Interior. If the religious group registers with the MOJ, the SNM accepts this as proof the applicant group is a religious organization. If the group does not register with the MOJ, the SNM makes its decision on a case-by-case basis.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the government registered 156 non-Catholic groups, an increase from 148 in 2019. Among the newly registered groups were the Religious Association of the Good Seed of Majes, House of Prayer for All Nations, and the Peruvian chapter of the Ministry of God’s Assemblies Abreu e Lima, all evangelical Protestant groups. According to the MOJ and local interfaith groups, the government accepted and approved the applications from all interested religious groups, and there were no reported denials.

Minister of Justice and Human Rights Ana Cristina Neyra Zegarra met virtually in October with leaders of Protestant and evangelical Christian associations, the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Islamic Association of Peru. Neyra Zegarra thanked the religious minorities for their societal contributions and assured them the government guaranteed the right of religious freedom. The minister stated in-person religious ceremonies at houses of worship, suspended since March due to COVID-19, would resume under strict public-health-based criteria and would not discriminate against or privilege any group.

FREPAP, a political party founded by and directly affiliated with the Israelites of the New Universal Pact religious group, obtained 8.4 percent of the national vote in the January 26 parliamentary election. The result granted FREPAP 15 seats in congress, its best performance since the party’s founding in 1989, and the largest congressional representation of a non-Catholic religious party in the country’s history. All 15 FREPAP members of congress were members of the Israelites of the New Universal Pact.

According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government provided an annual grant of approximately 2.6 million soles ($718,000) to the Catholic Church for stipends to archbishops and pastors, in accordance with the 1980 concordat with the Holy See. Each of the 45 Catholic ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the country also received a monthly subsidy of 1,000 soles ($280) for maintenance and repairs of church buildings, some of them of significant historical and cultural value. Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received subsidies from the government, in addition to these funds. These individuals represented approximately 8 percent of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents. According to Catholic Church representatives, the Church used these and other Church funds to provide humanitarian services to the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation. Similar stipends were not available to other religious groups.

The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including tax exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains, all benefits for which the Catholic Church automatically qualifies but for which other religious groups must apply. The council continued to discuss the government’s religious freedom regulations, particularly in the context of COVID-19.

Protestant pastors said some non-Catholic soldiers continued to have difficulty finding and attending non-Catholic religious services because by law, only Catholic chaplains may serve in the military.

The 2018 Constitutional Court ruling against government funding of schools operated by religious organizations did not go into effect while the government reviewed its implementation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interreligious Council continued to promote just and harmonious societies within a framework of respect, tolerance, and dialogue between different faith traditions. In November, the council held a virtual event to observe the International Day for Tolerance, bringing together various religious groups and international organizations such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to demonstrate support by faith communities for migrants, refugees, and displaced persons in the country.

Muslim and Jewish community members continued to state some public and private schools and employers occasionally required their members to use accumulated leave for non-Catholic religious holidays, including Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.

Religious groups and interfaith organizations continued to coordinate with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance, regardless of their religious affiliation, to more than one million displaced Venezuelans who entered the country since 2017. The Catholic Church and various evangelical Protestant churches in Tumbes continued to work with the government, the International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide temporary housing to Venezuelan migrants at the northern border.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to engage with government officials regarding religious freedom, and they discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to Venezuelan migrants in the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While restrictions related to COVID-19 made events and in-person outreach difficult, embassy officials engaged representatives of the Interreligious Council and encouraged religious groups to work together to provide humanitarian assistance to those most affected by the COVID-19 health emergency and its subsequent economic crisis, including Venezuelan migrants in the country. In November, embassy officials participated in the Interreligious Council’s virtual event commemorating the International Day for Tolerance.

Uruguay

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and affirms the state does not support any particular religion. Legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on religion. The government’s official commitment to secularism continued to generate controversy between religious groups and political leaders. At year’s end, the Prosecutor’s Office continued investigating the case of a public high school teacher who published several social media posts denying the existence of the Holocaust. In March, the government suspended all public gatherings, including religious ones, in compliance with strict health protocols to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Some religious leaders questioned the government’s authority to restrict their right to practice religion through decrees or protocols. According to some religious groups, the government did not consult with them on the drafting of COVID-19 measures, while it did consult with other religious groups, and that the protocols favored some religious groups over others. Religious organizations continued to underline the need for more channels of communication and opportunities for dialogue with the government to discuss issues related to religious freedom. In January, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.

Jewish community representatives continued to report press and social media commentary disparaging their religious beliefs and practices. A Jewish couple received anti-Semitic and threatening comments from a man who sold them a book by a Jewish author through an online platform. The couple reported the incidents to legal authorities, who charged the man with hate crimes. At year’s end, he was awaiting trial while under house arrest and with a restraining order from the couple. Members of the Muslim community continued to state it was occasionally difficult to convince private sector employers to respect prayer times during work hours and to obtain permission to leave work early to attend Friday prayers. Religious groups continued to promote interfaith dialogue, understanding, and coexistence in the country.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the government’s interpretation of secularism, the lack of a government counterpart responsible for religious issues, and the importance of tolerance towards religious minorities and interfaith collaboration with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Commission against Racism and Xenophobia (CHRXD), and the National Human Rights Institution (INDDHH). Embassy officials met with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, other minority religious group representatives, and the Board for Interfaith Dialogue to discuss their views on government attitudes towards religion and religious groups and the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to practice religion. The embassy continued to use social media to highlight the importance of respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 3.4 million 2020 midyear estimate. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 57 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian (42 percent Catholic and 15 percent Protestant), 37 percent as religious but unaffiliated, and 6 percent as other. Minority religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the Valdense Church, Afro-Umbandists (who blend elements of Catholicism with animism and African and indigenous beliefs), Buddhists, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Brahma Kumaris, and others. According to the survey, 0.3 percent of the population is Jewish, 0.1 percent Hindu, and 0.1 percent Muslim. Other estimates of the country’s Jewish population range from 12,000 to 30,000, according to the Jewish Studies department of ORT University and the National Israel Council, respectively. Civil society experts estimate there are between 700 and 1,500 Muslims, mostly living near the border with Brazil.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states, “The state does not support any particular religion.” The penal code prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The law calls for an annual commemoration of secularism, held on March 19.

The constitution accords the Catholic Church the right to ownership of all its churches built wholly or partly with previous state funding, with the exception of chapels dedicated for use as asylums, hospitals, prisons, or other public establishments.

Religious groups are entitled to property tax exemptions only for their houses of worship. To receive exemptions, a religious group must apply to, and be approved by, the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) as a registered nonprofit organization. The ministry routinely approves these registrations, after which the group may request a property tax exemption from the taxing authority, usually the local government.

Each local government regulates the use of its public land for burials. Many departments (equivalent to states) allow burials, services, and rites of all religions in their public cemeteries. Public health regulations, however, require burial in a coffin.

The INDDHH, an autonomous branch of parliament, and the MEC’s CHRXD enforce government compliance with antidiscrimination laws. Both organizations receive complaints of discrimination, conduct investigations, and issue separate rulings on whether discrimination occurred. These rulings include a recommendation on whether cases should receive a judicial or administrative hearing. Only the courts or the Ministry of Labor may sanction or fine for discrimination. The INDDHH and the CHRXD provide free legal services to complainants.

A correctional authority protocol regulates religious issues in prisons, including standardizing access for religious officials and religious meeting spaces. Several prisons in the country have a dedicated space for religious practice.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Public schools close on some Christian holidays. In deference to its secular nature, the government does not refer to holidays by their Christian names. For example, Christmas is formally referred to as “Family Day” and Holy Week is widely referred to as “Tourism Week.” Students belonging to non-Christian or minority religious groups may be absent from school on their religious holidays without penalty. Private schools run by religious organizations may decide which religious holidays to observe.

By registering for official recognition and certification with the Ministry of Education and Culture, religious groups are able to receive benefits, services, recognition, and tax reductions from the government. Religious workers must provide proof of certification from their affiliated religious institution to confirm the applicant’s identity and to guarantee financial support of the sponsoring religious group. According to regulations, the state must enforce these standards equitably across all religious groups.

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

Government Practices

At year’s end, the Prosecutor’s Office continued to investigate the case of a public high school teacher who published several social media posts denying the existence of the Holocaust. The Central Israelite Committee filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Institution denouncing the teacher and other persons who posted statements on Facebook and Twitter that denied the Holocaust and expressed other anti-Semitic sentiments. The Prosecutor’s Office, with support from the Information and Intelligence Office of the Ministry of Interior, conducted two separate investigations following the complaint – one on the teacher and the other on individuals posting other anti-Semitic messages on social media.

The government’s official commitment to secularism and how it impacted religious groups continued to generate controversy between religious groups and political leaders. Differing interpretations of the term “secularism” continued to lead to disagreements on the state’s role in enforcing the country’s secularism laws. Several representatives of religious groups said government authorities often interpreted secularism as the absence of religion, rather than as the coexistence of multiple religions or beliefs and the independence of religion from the state.

With the stated goal of increasing understanding of the country’s religious diversity, representatives of several religious communities, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Muslims, Brahma Kumaris, the Unification Church, Methodists, and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to request the government include in the public school curriculum comprehensive information about different religions with a presence in the country.

Some non-Christian minority religious groups said they believed the government favored Christians, as evidenced by the government’s renaming Christian holidays as official secular holidays, thereby automatically granting Christians time off from work to observe their holidays. For example, Easter Week was officially called “Tourism Week,” while Christians continued to refer to their holidays by their religious names. The government, however, did not designate religious holidays of other religious groups as official holidays, making it necessary for followers of other religions to request a day off to observe their holidays.

On March 1, during presidential inauguration ceremonies, President Lacalle Pou participated in an interreligious prayer service at the Catholic Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral, where leaders of Catholic, Anglican, Armenian, and evangelical Protestant Churches, and of the Jewish community, dedicated prayers to the new President. The Presidency’s social media accounts posted news of the event. Members of several political parties, including Frente Amplio and Partido Colorado, criticized the President’s presence, and in particular the promotion of the event on the Presidency’s social media platform as a violation of the principle of secularism, as established by the constitution.

On March 13, within a week of the country’s first reported COVID-19 case, religious groups suspended all in-person services and events, in accordance with a government decree. On March 25, the Chief of Staff for the Presidency met with leaders of the main religious communities to discuss the suspension of religious services and ceremonies and limitations or modifications of other activities, such as volunteering and engaging in charity work. Participants included representatives of the Central Israelite Committee of Uruguay, the Uruguayan Israelite Community, the New Israelite Congregation, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Evangelical Church, and the Anglican Church.

Many religious groups held virtual services and celebrations while the government decree was in effect. Some religious leaders privately questioned the government’s authority to restrict their right to conduct public religious activities through decrees and protocols. On June 19, the government authorized religious groups to conduct services and celebrations in-person if they followed specific health protocols, including limits on the frequency, duration, and size of gatherings. Although the government worked with religious leaders to draft the protocols, representatives of some religious groups expressed concern that certain protocols were not compatible with their religious observances, which required more than the permitted duration of 45-60 minutes. Some representatives of minority religious groups said they had not been included in the drafting of the protocols and that the protocols favored some religious groups over others. One group said it had requested authorities develop a tailored protocol to meet its needs, but that despite the government’s initial positive response, its request remained pending at year’s end.

In the state of Rivera, where press reported there was more than one COVID-19 outbreak resulting from gatherings of Afro-Umbandist and evangelical Protestant groups, authorities asked religious leaders to urge their followers to respect health protocols, stating that was preferable to fining congregants or closing down places of worship.

A spike in COVID-19 cases in late December led to a virtual meeting among the Chief of Staff for the Presidency, the Minister of Health, and representatives of some religious groups. Following the meeting, the chief of staff announced they had reached an agreement to reinstate the suspension of religious gatherings until January 10, 2021. The Catholic Archbishop of Montevideo said the Church would comply with the government’s decision, although it did not fully agree with the suspension, especially so close to Christmas. The Archbishop said the Catholic Church had been in strict compliance with pandemic health protocols during religious services, without any reported outbreaks. Representatives of some minority groups expressed discontent at not having been invited to participate in the virtual meeting.

A representative of Afro-Umbandists reported most leaders of their religious group had encouraged followers to refrain from in-person ceremonies since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, given the special characteristics of their ceremonies, which involved holding hands, singing and dancing in close proximity, and sharing drinks. Afro-Umbandist leaders discussed a possible protocol with the Ministry of Health to resume their rituals, but they had produced only a draft proposal by year’s end. In view of the upcoming Iemanja celebration in February 2021, bringing thousands of persons to the coasts with offerings to the Sea Goddess, a leader of the group met with the Minister of Defense in December to discuss ways to lower the risk of contagion on public beaches during these rites.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights continued its review of a petition several evangelical Christian organizations filed in 2019. According to the petitioners, which included Mision Vida para Las Naciones, the government had made negative statements that had incited hatred against evangelical churches and had discriminated against them based on religious grounds.

According to Egyptian Center of Islamic Culture representatives, during the year there was no progress in developing land granted to the center in 2019 to build the country’s first Islamic cemetery, located in Canelones Department. The delay was reportedly due to lack of funds. According to media, the Canelones Department government also needed to revise public health regulations to allow Islamic burials without a coffin.

Representatives of the Muslim community continued to report authorities rarely made appropriate meals available in public primary schools for Muslim children who observed halal restrictions.

Members of the Jewish community continued to say the government should issue regulations to allow alternate university-level exam dates for students observing religious holidays, instead of leaving that decision to individual professors.

The total number of cases of discrimination based on religion, released by the CHRXD, was not available at the year’s end. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to manage the System for the Monitoring of Recommendations, an interagency, computer-based tool used to monitor and report on human rights issues, including discrimination based on religion.

Some members of Catholic and evangelical Protestant groups continued to say government approaches to sex education, gender, and abortion, as taught in public schools, threatened their freedom of speech and the right to practice their religion. According to some religious groups, government agencies, including the CHRXD and the INDDHH, did not prioritize the monitoring of discrimination based on religion, focusing instead on what the government considered other more “pressing” human rights concerns, such as the rights of persons with disabilities, Afro-descendants, the LGBTI community, women, incarcerated persons, and human rights violations committed by the state during the military dictatorship.

Religious organizations said they continued to welcome opportunities for direct dialogue with the government on religious freedom but said there were few or no formal channels of communication through which to raise general concerns or discuss initiatives regarding religious freedom. They said, however, a government official in the Office of the Presidency was available to discuss COVID-19 related issues as they pertained to religious groups. They suggested creating a government institution to address religious issues and to act as a link between religious groups and the state.

In January, the government adopted the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Members of the Jewish community expressed their support for the government’s adoption, including through press releases. As in previous years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported activities to commemorate the Holocaust, including high-level representation at events organized by the Jewish community. The government publicized Holocaust-related statements and events of religious organizations on its official website. Parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims. Also in January, the government broadcast a national message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which Enrique Iglesias, renowned economist and Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Commission created by former President Tabare Vazquez in 2019, referred to the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Iglesias said, “The memory of the Holocaust is to be shared, condemned, and transmitted as a monument of ‘never again.’” Closing his speech, he stated, “Never Again will only be a reality when we are all able to recognize the universality of human beings in the specificity of each race, belief, or opinion; this should be the legacy left by the Holocaust for us to remember today.”

In July, the Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed concern regarding a judge’s 2019 ruling in favor of private parties who found and wished to auction an 800-pound bronze Nazi eagle bearing a swastika, stating the decision did not ensure the piece would be sold to institutions and individual bidders who wanted to raise awareness about the Holocaust and other instances of genocide, and that it did not ensure that a buyer would not use the item to glorify Nazism. The center urged authorities to ensure that the display of these symbols serve as a warning to future generations of what should never be repeated, stating that in light of the country’s commitment to the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, the government was obligated to prevent “the public use of symbols that recall ethnic cleansing.” By year’s end, the piece had not been auctioned.

On November 11, government officials, including President Lacalle Pou, politicians, and human rights activists, attended the Central Israelite Committee’s commemoration of the 1938 Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Several government officials and politicians posted online their participation in the commemoration and emphasized the need to remember and reflect, and to foster tolerance and coexistence.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jewish representatives continued to report the occurrence of comments and activities in media and on social media sites disparaging their religious beliefs and practices, including anti-Semitic remarks and Holocaust denial. In November, a woman bought a book written by a Jewish author through an online platform. The seller requested the woman’s cell phone number to complete the transaction, but instead of delivering the purchase, she said he sent “hateful” messages, mentioning Zyklon B, the lethal gas used by Nazis in concentration camps. When the woman’s husband called the seller, the seller threatened him, making statements such as “Hitler ran short,” and, “I will go to your home and kill you all.” The couple, fearful because the man had their address, reported the threats to authorities. The prosecutor handling the case charged the man with “acts of moral or physical violence, hate or contempt toward one or more persons as a result of their skin color, race, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, or identity.” At year’s end, the man was under 60 days’ house arrest and a restraining order while the investigation continued.

Members of the Muslim community continued to state it was occasionally difficult to convince private sector employers to respect prayer times during work hours and to obtain permission to leave work early to attend Friday prayers.

The Zionist Organization of Uruguay presented the 2020 Jerusalem Prize to Pedro Bordaberry, former Senator, Minister of Tourism, and presidential candidate for the Colorado political party. The annual prize recognizes a prominent national figure, typically a representative from government or academia, for promoting and defending the human rights of Jews and encouraging peaceful coexistence among persons of different beliefs.

The Board for Interfaith Dialogue, a group of representatives from different religious groups and spiritual expressions, including Brahma Kumaris, the Church of Jesus Christ, Catholics, Jews, evangelical Protestants, Afro-Umbandists, and Baha’is, continued to promote interfaith understanding and foster respect for religious diversity through expanding opportunities for dialogue and meetings, both virtually and in-person.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resulting suspension of all in-person religious services, Jewish and Christian religious leaders joined together to produce an online video calling on their communities to maintain hope, stay home, and take care of themselves and others.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the government’s interpretation of secularism, lack of a government counterpart responsible for religious issues, and the importance of tolerance towards religious minorities and interfaith engagement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CHRXD, and the INDDHH. Embassy officials encouraged government representatives to engage in dialogue with all religious groups.

Embassy officials met during the year with religious leaders, including Catholics, Jews, evangelical Protestants, members of other minority religious groups, as well as with subject-matter experts, including academics, lawyers, and human rights experts, to discuss interfaith collaboration and to hear concerns about faith-related issues. These individuals expressed their views on the government’s attitude toward religion and religious groups and the impact of COVID-19 on their followers’ ability to practice their religion.

The embassy used social media to highlight respect for religious diversity and tolerance and to commemorate International Religious Freedom Day on October 27.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. Representatives of the conference of Catholic bishops, officially known as the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV), and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said clergy and other members of their religious communities were harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. In April, officers of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State. Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the Maduro regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property. Media reported nonstate armed groups (NSAGs), called colectivos, aligned with Nicolas Maduro continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, a group of Maduro-aligned colectivos led by regime-controlled security forces assaulted teachers attending Mass prior to a planned protest in Caracas, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Church leaders reported Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. There were reports that regime officials continued to prevent clergy opposing Maduro from holding religious services. According to media reports and other sources, throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. Editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets continued to accuse interim President Juan Guaido and other interim government officials as agents or lobbyists of Zionism. Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in Maduro-controlled or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages. They said Maduro-controlled or -associated media and supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust and promoted conspiracy theories linking Israel and Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and other social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. Representatives said the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law.

During the year, the VAU continued to engage with the Guaido-led interim government. The VAU also continued to maintain close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities. VAU representatives and members of these groups discussed repression and attacks on religious communities committed by the Maduro regime; harassment by the regime’s aligned and armed civilian gangs; and anti-Semitic posts in social media and in regime-controlled media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate), compared with 32.1 million in the 2019 midyear estimate – a decrease attributable to the outmigration of millions of Venezuelans. The U.S. government estimates 96 percent of the population is Catholic. The remaining population includes evangelical Protestants, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baha’is, and Jews. Observers estimate as much as 30 percent of the population follows practices of Afro-descendant religions Santeria and Espiritismo, some of which also influence Catholic practices in the country, including in Catholic Church music and festivals.

The ECV estimates 18 percent of the population is Protestant, the majority of whom are members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its numbers at 168,500. The Muslim community numbers more than 100,000 and consists primarily of persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent living in Nueva Esparta State and the Caracas metropolitan area. Sunnis are the majority, with a minority Shia community primarily in Margarita Island in Nueva Esparta State. According to the Baha’i community, its membership is approximately 5,000. According to CAIV, the Jewish community numbers approximately 6,000, with most members living in Caracas. Media estimate there are 5,000 Jews, compared with 30,000 in 1999.

Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition that the practice of a religion does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. A 1964 concordat governs relations between the government and the Holy See and provides for government funding for Catholic Church-run schools. In 2017, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), which the National Assembly, democratically elected in 2015, and the Guaido-led interim government and much of the international community consider illegitimate, passed an anti-hate law criminalizing acts of incitement to hatred or violence. Individuals who violate the law face 10 to 20 years in prison. The law includes 25 articles stipulating a wide array of directives, restrictions, and penalties. The law criminalizes political party activities promoting “fascism, intolerance, or hatred,” which comprise numerous factors, including religion. It also criminalizes individual acts promoting violence or hatred, the publication or transmission of any messages promoting violence or hatred by any media outlet, and the publication of messages promoting violence or hatred on social media. Among the violations are those committed by individuals or media outlets, including by members of religious groups or media associated with a religious group.

The Directorate of Justice and Religion (DJR) in the Maduro-controlled Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace (MOI) maintains a registry of religious groups, disburses funds to religious organizations, and promotes awareness and understanding among religious communities. Each religious group must register with the DJR to acquire legal status as a religious organization. Registration requires declaration of property belonging to the religious group, identification of any religious authorities working directly for it, and articles of incorporation. Religious groups are required to demonstrate how they will provide social services to their communities and to receive a letter of acceptance from the regime-controlled community council in the neighborhood(s) where the group will work. The MOI reviews applications and may delay approval indefinitely. Religious groups must register any new statutes with the DJR.

The law neither prohibits nor promotes religious education in public schools. An 18-year-old agreement between the CEV and the state allows catechists to teach Christian and sacramental values in public schools in preparation for First Communion; this agreement, however, is not enforced.

The law provides for Catholic chaplains to minister to the spiritual needs of Catholics serving in the military. There are no similar provisions for other religious groups.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Government” Practices

“Government” Practices

CEV and ECV representatives said the Maduro regime harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against their clergy and other members of their religious communities for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. On April 8, GNB officers detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State on the grounds that he lacked permission to hold a public gathering under COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Sifontes installed an improvised altar in front of the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church, which included a cross and a tattered Venezuelan flag. Sifontes then led a procession, remaining in his vehicle the entire time, with a statue of Jesus bearing the cross atop his car through the streets of Las Cocuizas, Monagas State. Parishioners denounced Sifontes’ detention as illegal and arbitrary. Sifontes was released later the same day.

Media reported that NSAGs aligned with the Maduro regime continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, members of the teachers union gathered at the Cathedral of Caracas for Mass prior to a protest against Maduro. Colectivos attacked the teachers in the church, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Teachers and journalists covering the protest reported the colectivos involved in the attack were led by members of the GNB. According to sources, on February 11, members of a colectivo linked to the regime attacked a Catholic soup kitchen and health services clinic in Los Teques, Miranda State. The armed and masked colectivos threatened the occupants, robbed them of their valuables, and beat the soup kitchen’s coordinator so severely she was hospitalized.

There were reports that Maduro representatives continued to prevent clergy opposing the regime from holding religious services. On October 5, the mayor of Barbacoas, in Aragua State, closed down and fired the staff of Catholic radio station The Singing Revolutionary. The station director’s son, Anthony Gonzalez, previously a seminarian at a local seminary, led a religious service on October 4, during which he criticized Maduro for the lack of ambulances, biosafety equipment, and supplies at medical centers needed to transport and treat COVID-19 patients as well as combat the disease.

Church leaders reported SEBIN officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. The leaders said SEBIN officers followed and harassed Catholic laity involved in delivering humanitarian aid or participating in public demonstrations and photographed their homes.

According to media reports and other sources, throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. In a January 14 homily, Bishop Victor Hugo Basabe – Bishop of the Diocese of San Felipe and Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto – denounced what he called the abuse of power and use of force against the population. Later the same day, Maduro responded to Basabe’s remarks in his annual address to the ANC, in which he accused Basabe of using the homily to manipulate faith for “retrograde, reactionary, and right-wing politics,” and he demanded bishops not conduct politics from the pulpit.

During a July 27 television broadcast, Maduro called on the Catholic Church to use its churches and other places of worship, closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, to house Venezuelans returning from abroad who had contracted COVID. The CEV responded that church facilities, while engaged in the distribution of medicine and humanitarian aid, lacked the necessary equipment and medical infrastructure to provide lifesaving care to COVID patients. CEV representatives stated that Maduro’s demand was an attempt to deflect criticism from his mistreatment of Venezuelans afflicted by the virus. Mariano Parra Sandoval, Archbishop of Coro, Falcon State, suggested Maduro use military installations instead of churches because the former were better equipped to care for COVID-19 patients. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the Maduro regime instead forcibly detained returning COVID-positive Venezuelans in makeshift camps under terrible conditions.

Media reported the Maduro regime regularly accused Catholic laity of being “perverts” and perpetrators of pedophilia who acted with the complicity of Church leadership. On January 22, then-Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, an active-duty National Guard general who later became Minister of Electrical Energy, stated, “Instead of devoting themselves to politics, Catholic authorities should focus on removing priests who engage in these aberrant activities.” He cited the case of Father Jesus Manuel Rondon Molina, of Rubio, Tachira State, killed on January 16 by an individual who said the priest had sexually abused him. On January 20, the CEV issued a statement denying the Church had attempted to cover up abuse allegations and stating the Church had initiated an investigation of Rondon Molina and prohibited him from meeting with minors.

According to media, on March 29, colectivos spray-painted words threatening to attack “the damned opposition” on the walls of the Saint Catalina Church in Carupano, Sucre State, signing the messages with “Bolivarian Fury.” Colectivos adopted the phrase from a March 26 speech by Maduro to launch an intimidation campaign against perceived opponents.

CAIV representatives said Maduro regime representatives continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and that the community placed U.S. interests above those of the country. According to the Anti-defamation League (ADL), most anti-Semitic messaging on social media and other media continued to originate from Maduro and his supporters. Some members of the Jewish community stated the regime and those sympathetic to it, including some media outlets, used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism, saying they avoided accusations of anti-Semitism by replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” During the year, editorials in state-owned and pro-Maduro media outlets accused Guaido and Guaido-nominated representatives of being agents or lobbyists for Zionism. During a September 2 television broadcast, ANC president Diosdado Cabello called opposition politician David Smolansky “an agent of Zionism, the most murderous of Zionist assassins.”

Regime-controlled news media and regime-friendly social media posts circulated theories that linked the COVID-19 pandemic to Israel and Jews. In a May 15 social media post, Basem Tajeldine, an analyst for state-owned media outlet TeleSur, characterized Israel as a virus, calling the “IsraHell virus as much of a killer as COVID-19, eating the lungs of the Palestinian people from the 1947 Nakba to today.”

Members of the Maduro regime continued to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. On June 12, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court appointed Luis Fuenmayor Toro, known for his statements questioning the existence of the Holocaust, to the National Electoral Council.

On October 19, the CEV released a pastoral letter, “On the social, economic, moral and political situation of the country,” that stated “both the ruling party and the opposition do not present a project for the country that is able to bring together and convince the majority of the Venezuelan people to live in justice, freedom and peace” and that called for “a change of attitude in all the political leaders.” According to the CEV letter, and in reference to what it termed the fraudulent December 6 legislative elections, “The electoral event scheduled for next December 6, far from contributing to the democratic solution of the political situation we are experiencing today, tends to worsen it,” and, “It is immoral to hold elections when people suffer the consequences of the pandemic, lack the minimum conditions necessary for their survival, and there are no transparent rules and verification mechanisms that should characterize an electoral process.”

In response to the creation in April of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council by religious groups not associated with Maduro, the regime created its own National Religious Council that included representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, evangelical Protestant, and Afro-descendant communities, as well as the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches. Observers criticized the move as an attempt to politicize religious communities and create the appearance of support for the Maduro regime.

Throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime met with the Evangelical Christian Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a pro-Maduro organization. Leaders of the Evangelical and Baptist Churches said members of MOCEV were unknown to them and did not speak for their religious communities. ECV Vice President Jose Pinero said he believed MOCEV may have received benefits from the regime in exchange for its political support.

The Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela, whose foundation Maduro announced in December 2019, had not opened by year’s end. Members of the Catholic and Evangelical communities rejected the initiative, stating it was an attempt to “buy their conscience,” and they voiced concern that any such institution would demonstrate an ideological bent in favor of the Maduro. On February 13, Jose Vielma Mora, Maduro’s Vice President for Religious Affairs, called for the creation of religious workshops and educational programs at universities to build religious tolerance. Observers criticized the announcement as “political interference” and an attack on the independence of the religious and university sectors. Student leaders pointed out the impracticality of such programs, given the regime’s refusal to fund university budgets, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which, they said, limited the ability of universities to hold classes of any type.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Articles published on the online newspaper Aporrea stated COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed by Israel, and that Zionists used the pandemic to destabilize the country and foment a coup against Maduro.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. According to its founding members, the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law. Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas and CEV Secretary General Jose Trinidad Fernandez said the council was “a structure of reflection and action based on plurality, whose contribution will generate consensus to mitigate the serious problems that our society is experiencing.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States continues to recognize the authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly and of Juan Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela and does not recognize the Maduro regime as a government. In 2019, the Department of State announced the temporary suspension of operations of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and announced the opening of the VAU, located at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. The VAU is the U.S. mission to Venezuela, which continues engagement with the Government of Venezuela and outreach to the Venezuelan people. During the year, the VAU maintained close contact with the Guaido-led interim government to discuss actions by the Maduro regime that infringe upon religious freedom and other human rights.

VAU officials communicated regularly with a wide range of religious communities and leaders in the country to discuss the treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitic rhetoric by the Maduro regime and its supporters, and reprisals on some faith groups that disagree with Maduro’s political agenda. In conversations with embassy officials, religious leaders expressed their concern that the continued presence of the Maduro regime would only further the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the country, and that criticism of Maduro would increase hostility towards faith communities. VAU officials held meetings with representatives from the CEV, ECV, CAIV, and the Muslim community. Each community expressed interest in maintaining communications and exploring possible outreach programs in the future. The VAU also communicated the value of religious freedom in interviews with media outlets and on digital media.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future