The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. By law, the Belize Council of Churches (BCC), a board including representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC), alternate in appointing one individual, the “church senator,” to the Senate with the Governor General’s concurrence. In August, authorities arrested and charged an evangelical Protestant pastor under the COVID-19 state of emergency regulations, which limited gatherings to under 10 persons, after he led a congregation of 16 persons in worship. In September, the government withdrew the introduction of the Equal Opportunities Bill (EOB) after the Belize Council of Churches (BCC) said it could not support it in its “current form.” Many religious groups opposed the EOB, stating that the government forced the bill through the approval process without consulting them and that the EOB provided no specific protections on the basis of religion or personal belief. In December, the Governor General appointed Reverend Alvin Moses Benguche, a Methodist Bishop, as the new church senator representing all religious groups, on the BCC’s recommendation following the November parliamentary election.
Religious groups continued collaboration with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out missionary work in the country. The interfaith Belize Chaplain Service (BCS) continued to promote several initiatives, including counseling services for relatives of crime victims and for police officers, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public.
U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in meetings with government officials and encouraged the government’s engagement with a wide spectrum of religious groups. The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including Anglican Bishop Philip Wright, Catholic Bishop Lawrence Nicasio, and representatives of religious minorities to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on public engagement and assembly, the embassy used social media to highlight the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. Falun Gong members continued to report difficulty in renting performance spaces, which they attributed to People’s Republic of China (PRC) embassy interference. Japan Uyghur Association (JUA) Honorary Chairman and World Uyghur Congress Representative for East Asia and the Pacific Ilham Mahmut reported concern regarding potential bias against Uyghur Muslims applying for refugee status at government immigration centers, as well as continued intimidation by PRC officials. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported that in 2019 (latest statistics available), its human rights division received 224 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 164 in 2018, and confirmed seven cases, compared with eight in 2018, as highly likely to be religious freedom violations. The country continued to have a low rate of approval of refugee applications, a policy the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized. In 2019 (latest statistics available), the government granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to four applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons, compared with two in 2018.
The Beppu Muslim Association faced opposition from some residents in response to its plan to build an Islamic cemetery on land that it owns in Hiji Town, Oita Prefecture.
In meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and while participating in a symposium attended by lawmakers, U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to continue to work with the United States to protect Muslims originating from China and from other countries that restrict religious freedom. Embassy officials also engaged with faith-based groups and religious minority leaders and their supporters to promote religious freedom and acceptance of diversity. The embassy used its social media platforms to highlight the importance of religious freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states that while no religion shall have a “state character,” the government shall form cooperative relations with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious faiths. The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See that grants the Catholic Church additional benefits not available to three other groups with which the government has agreements: Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. Groups without agreements may register with the government and receive some benefits. In January, the government moved responsibility for religious issues from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of the Presidency, Relations with Parliament, and Democratic Memory (Ministry of the Presidency). Several religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed satisfaction with the move, stating the reorganization gave religious issues increased prominence. In July, Amnesty International called on the government to decriminalize “offending religious sentiments,” which it said unduly restricted freedom of expression. Some religious groups and NGOs voiced concerns about government restrictions on places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several minority religious groups objected to unequal legal treatment, compared with the Catholic Church, on issues including tax allocations, access to cemeteries, public financing, and pensions for clergy. There were instances of members of parliament or local government officials using derogatory language against religious minorities. The governmental Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation continued outreach to various religious groups and organized events promoting religious freedom. The Ministry of the Interior’s Office on Hate Crimes offered assistance to victims of religiously motivated hate crimes and provided training to law enforcement.
The NGO Observatory for Religious Freedom and Conscience (OLRC) reported 181 religiously motivated incidents – including two assaults – in the first nine months of the year, six more than in the same period in 2019. Of the 181 cases, 75 percent were against Christians. The Ministry of the Interior documented 66 hate crimes with religious motivations in 2019, compared with 69 in 2018. The General Prosecutor’s 2019 annual report reported seven judicial processes opened during 2019 for hate crimes involving religion and two court rulings for crimes against religious sentiments. Some Christians, Muslims, and Jews reported increased hostility against them on social media and increased instances of vandalism.
U.S. embassy and consulate officials maintained communication with the Ministry of the Presidency’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as with regional governments’ offices for religious affairs; topics discussed included access to permits for places of worship, religious education, cemeteries and burial, pensions, religiously motivated hate crimes, and hate speech. Embassy and consulate officials met with a wide range of religious groups and civil society members and discussed discrimination and the free exercise of their religious rights. The embassy and consulate posted social media messages commemorating various religious holidays and observances and highlighting the importance of religious freedom and the inclusion and respect for religious minority communities. In January, embassy officials cosponsored a series of events commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Month.