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.
The country’s constitution contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds. According to the religious freedom advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and religious leaders, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. CSW’s annual report concluded the government “violated freedom of religion or belief routinely and systematically” through arbitrary detentions, false charges, threats, and harassment of religious leaders and religious freedom defenders. The report also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government confiscated food that some religious groups intended to provide to those in need, blocked overseas humanitarian aid, and threatened and charged religious leaders for “spreading disease.” There were reports that authorities continued to subject leaders of Free Yorubas of Cuba to arbitrary detentions, threats, and verbal harassment. Media and religious freedom defenders reported the government continued to restrict the right of prisoners to practice religion freely, limit or block international and domestic travel, and harass and detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez and Apostolic Church Pastor Alain Toledano. CSW reported 203 documented cases of freedom of religion violations, compared with 260 in 2019, attributing the decrease to the decision of the Ladies in White to halt their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass for seven months during the pandemic. On October 30, state security officers surrounded a church affiliated with Toledano in Santiago de Cuba and destroyed it; authorities arrested Toledano while he live streamed the destruction on Facebook. According to media, authorities temporarily detained Apostolic leader Yilber Durand Dominguez and Christian artist Jose Acebo Hidalgo when they resisted letting government officials into their homes during the COVID-19 quarantine. In March, authorities released homeschooling advocate Ayda Exposito after she served a sentence for “other acts against the normal development of a minor.” Her husband, Reverend Ramon Rigal, was released in July. Media reported authorities threatened to deny the couple custody of their children if they resumed homeschooling. According to religious groups, the ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). In April, a female convert to Islam told media she stopped wearing a hijab after her government-run workplace forbade her from wearing it. In January, a member of the Jewish community in Nuevitas, Camaguey Municipality, said a local state prosecutor forced him to sign a document acknowledging that if his children came to school wearing kippahs, he and his wife would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year prison sentence. According to CSW, many religious leaders continued to practice self-censorship because of government surveillance and infiltration of religious groups. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to press for legal changes, including easing registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.
Unlike in previous years, the Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” was unable to hold an interfaith meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some religious groups and organizations, such as the Catholic charity Caritas, however, continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to individuals regardless of religious belief.
Due to lack of government responsiveness, U.S. embassy officials did not meet with or otherwise engage the ORA during the year. Embassy officials met regularly, both in person and virtually, with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs. In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion. On October 5, the Secretary stated, “Vast swathes of humanity live in countries where religious freedom is restricted, from places like…Cuba, and beyond.” Embassy officials remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating meetings between visiting civil society delegations and religious groups in the country.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
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.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status. Following the killing of indigenous spiritual leader Domingo Choc, President Alejandro Giammattei condemned the killing and met with members of Choc’s spiritual council to hear their grievances. The Committee on the Designation of Sacred Sites (COLUSAG), which registers sites as sacred places for Mayan spirituality, said its mission was hindered during the year after President Giammattei announced the closure in April of the Secretariat of Peace (SEPAZ), which had provided COLUSAG with a meeting place and an organizational structure in the government. After the announcement of SEPAZ’s closure, COLUSAG moved temporarily to the Presidential Secretariat for Planning and Public Policy Coordination. In August, civil society groups and political parties challenged the constitutionality of closing SEPAZ. On December 29, Mayan leaders from COLUSAG protested SEPAZ’s closure and called upon the legislature to legally protect sacred indigenous sites. At year’s end, the Constitutional Court did not issue a decision on SEPAZ’s future and the government did not clarify COLUSAG’s status. In November, lawmakers proposed a budget that would cut funding for the national human rights office and other social programs. The proposal triggered widespread demonstrations, including protesters setting fire to Congress. The country’s Catholic bishops were among several civil society groups that urged President Giammattei to veto the budget bill and called for calm. Lawmakers withdrew the proposed budget after the protests. Non-Catholic groups stated some municipal authorities continued to discriminate against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection.
On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten Department, beat and burned to death Mayan spiritual leader and herbalist Domingo Choc after accusing him of using witchcraft to kill a man a few days earlier. Videos of Choc’s killing circulated on social media, and public outrage grew quickly. On June 9, National Civil Police (PNC) arrested several villagers for the killing; they awaited trial at year’s end. Mayan spiritual leaders reported an increase in violent acts and societal prejudice against their community following the killing. Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection and human rights work. According to reports from the Archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, at least five priests received serious threats during the year.
The U.S. embassy regularly engaged with government officials, civil society organizations, and religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites. Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity, including for religious minorities, in meetings with various civil society and religious groups. Embassy officials also emphasized the need to denounce and prevent violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners.
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.
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.