The constitution stipulates the state is independent of religion and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion, and cult, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private.” The constitution and other laws give educational institutions the right to teach religion, including indigenous spiritual belief classes. Religious leaders of various Christian and non-Christian groups stated that the country’s registration law had the potential to limit their ability to operate independently and could favor particular religious groups. Church leaders again worked with the government on a legislative proposal exempting churches from the registration requirements with a grace period of five years if the legislation passes. According to evangelical Protestant community sources, several smaller religious communities with “house churches” still preferred not to register their organizations, stating they did not want to provide the government with access to private internal information. In January the congress abrogated revisions of the penal code, including an article criminalizing recruitment into “religious organizations or cults.” In December, following a meeting with evangelical Protestant leaders, the government announced it would introduce a draft religious freedom law in February 2019. Tensions between Christian church leaders, particularly Roman Catholics, and government officials continued. Government officials continued to criticize church representatives for speaking out on presidential term limits and other political issues. Evangelical Protestant leaders again stated the government violated the constitutional separation of religion and state by employing ethnic Aymara rituals and practices during government events and ceremonies.
Evangelical Protestant leaders again cited expulsions by indigenous religious leaders of evangelical pastors from rural areas because the pastors had refused to participate in ancestral practices and rituals.
U.S. embassy access to government officials was still limited despite embassy requests for meetings. Embassy staff regularly met with religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom. The Charge d’Affaires hosted interfaith meetings for religious leaders in October and November. Representatives from the evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jewish, and Muslim religious groups participated. Topics discussed included the government’s respect for religious freedom and practices and the importance of respect for religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.3 million (July 2018 estimate). According to U.S. government figures, 77 percent of the population identifies as Catholic and 16 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal groups. According to the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ in La Paz, approximately 300,000 thousand followers reside in the country; the Church of Jesus Christ’s central website estimates more than 200,000 followers. Approximately 5 percent identify with smaller religious groups and 5 percent self-identify as nonbelievers. There are approximately 1,500 Muslims and approximately 450 Jews, according to leaders of the respective faiths and news reports. Many indigenous communities, concentrated in rural areas, practice a mix of Catholic and indigenous spiritual traditions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, the state respects and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion and cult,” expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private. The constitution stipulates the state is independent of all religion.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, including in access to educational institutions, health services, and employment and protects the right of access to public sport and recreational activities without regard to religion.
The law requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to operate legally. Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from the registration law.
According to the MFA’s Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations Office, religious organizations must fulfill 14 requirements to register their organization with the government. Organizations must submit their notarized legal documents, including statutes, internal regulations, and procedures; rental agreement documents, utility invoices for the place(s) of worship, and a site map; detailed information on board members and legal representatives, including criminal background checks; an INTERPOL certificate for foreigners; and proof of fiscal solvency. They must also provide the organization chart, with names, addresses, identification card numbers, and photographs; a full list of members and identifying information; details on activities and services provided by the organization, including the location of the services; and information on their financing source(s), domestic and/or foreign.
The requirements for classification as a spiritual organization or religious organization vary slightly, but the government requires essentially the same type of information from both spiritual and religious entities. The constitution defines a spiritual organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves to carry out practices that develop their spirituality according to their ancestral worldview. Most spiritual organizations are indigenous in their origins. The constitution defines a religious organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves with the purpose of carrying out practices of worship and/or belief around a Supreme Being, in order to develop their spirituality and religiosity, and whose purpose does not pursue profit.
The government may revoke a spiritual or religious organization’s operating license if the organization does not produce an annual report of activities for more than two consecutive years; does not comply with its stated objectives; carries out activities different from those established in its statute; or carries out activities contrary to the country’s constitution, laws, morality, or “good customs.” A religious or spiritual organization may also lose its operating license if it does not comply with the deadline for renewing the license.
A 2017 regulation requires religious and spiritual groups to reregister their operating licenses to ensure all documents list the official name of the country as “Estado Plurinacional.” Prior to this new requirement, organizations could carry an older version of licenses that listed the name of the state as “Republica de Bolivia.” Reregistration also requires any amendments to organizations’ bylaws to conform to all new national laws. Organizations must comply with the new registration requirements by 2019. Registered religious groups receive tax, customs, and other legal benefits.
The fees to obtain an operating license differ between “Religious Organizations” and “Spiritual Organizations,” with costs of 6,780 bolivianos ($990) and 4,068 bolivianos ($590), respectively.
The government reserves the right to revoke an organization’s operating permit for noncompliance with the registration requirements. The government may not deny legal recognition to any organization based on its articles of faith.
The constitution and other laws provide educational institutions the option to teach religion classes, including indigenous spiritual belief classes, with the stated aim of encouraging mutual respect among religious communities. While religion classes are optional, schools must teach ethics with curriculum materials that promote religious tolerance. The government does not restrict religious teaching in public or private schools, and it does not restrict a student from attending private, religiously affiliated schools. The law also requires all schools to accept students regardless of their religious affiliation.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
Members of the evangelical Protestant community again said several smaller religious communities forming congregations that observe prayer at unofficial worship locations continued to refuse to register their organizations because they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal personal information. Sources stated that these unregistered groups still could neither own property nor have bank accounts in their name; however, the sources said the government did not interfere with these organizations for their refusal to comply with the law.
According to the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations, there were approximately 440 registered religious groups, an increase from 434 in 2017. Many religious groups continued to state that the complexity of the registration procedure, including registering the legal name of the organization, required them to seek legal assistance in order to comply. This process generally took four to six months to complete.
Leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ and evangelical Protestant churches continued to work with the government on a legislative proposal exempting churches from the registration requirements for the next five years.
The Bolivian National Association of Evangelicals sent a letter to the foreign minister on September 27, raising what it said was governmental preferential treatment of indigenous groups and citing the fee structure difference to obtain operating licenses for spiritual and religious groups as an example. The government did not respond to the letter during the year.
On December 24, after a meeting between evangelical Protestant leaders and President Evo Morales, Foreign Minister Diego Pary, and the previous president of congress, Jose Gonzalez, the government announced the congress would introduce a draft Religious Freedom law in February 2019. In January the congress abrogated the revised penal code, which had included an article criminalizing recruitment into “religious organizations or cults.” The action was reportedly in response to civil society protests of the revision, including from members of the evangelical Protestant community.
According to media reports and religious leaders, government leaders continued to criticize religious leaders who publicly commented on political issues. Catholic representatives said the longstanding and public tensions between the Catholic community and the government continued. According to media reports, in June the Bolivian Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CEB) deputy general secretary, Father Jose Fuentes, stated that President Evo Morales’ politics excluded portions of the country’s population. In response to these comments, President Morales accused the CEB of racism. In November Archbishop of Sucre Jesus Juarez stated that the CEB backed the outcome of the 2016 referendum reaffirming term limits for the president and vice president. On November 5, the CEB officially invited President Morales to the Assembly of Bishops. The minister of the Presidency, Alfredo Rada, publicly released a letter rejecting the CEB’s invitation. The letter, signed by Rada, stated that the Office of the President was surprised to receive the invitation because some bishops “attack” the current administration and “persist in using hard and false concepts” such as the accusation that the country’s democracy was at risk.
On December 2, the CEB commented on the November 2017 Plurinational Constitutional Court of Bolivia (TCP) ruling, which invalidated the referendum’s outcome by removing term limits for elected officials, thus allowing President Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term. The CEB stated that the TCP decision “constitutes a serious damage to democracy, and ignores the popular will expressed in the referendum of February 21, 2016.” Father Fuentes of the CEB further stated, “This precedent may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the authorities and institutions called to preserve the democratic health of our country. It could put us in a situation of violation of the constitutional order of unforeseeable consequences.” President Morales responded to the CEB’s comments by stating that some bishops and other members of the Catholic Church were “inclined to support the powerful” and were “betraying Jesus” by supporting the opposition.
A representative from the Jewish community stated the Jewish community still had no contact with the president or any other kind of relationship with the Morales administration.
Evangelical Protestant leaders again said the government violated the constitution’s separation of religion and state by favoring an Andean spiritual philosophy, especially the philosophy of the ethnic Aymara community, over other religious beliefs, in public statements and ceremonies.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Evangelical Protestant leaders again stated that members of indigenous communities continued to expel missionaries and pastors from rural communities for practicing a religion that did not defer to traditional Andean spiritual beliefs. According to leaders in the evangelical Protestant community, indigenous leaders expelled pastors from rural villages for not observing indigenous customs such as making offerings to mother earth.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. government access to government officials continued to be limited despite embassy requests for meetings.
Embassy representatives routinely engaged religious leaders to underscore the importance of tolerance and religious freedom. In October and November the Charge d’Affaires hosted interfaith meetings for religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Methodist, Church of Jesus Christ, Jewish, and Muslim communities to discuss religious freedom issues, such as registration challenges and perceived discrimination, and to engage religious leaders in interfaith dialogue.
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, among other responsibilities. In March the MOI introduced a new policy, titled “Comprehensive Public Policy of Religious Freedom and Worship,” establishing a Religious Freedom Directorate in the MOI and providing technical assistance to corresponding entities at the regional level. The MOI started developing protective tools for religious groups as part of its ongoing implementation of the new public policy. The Mennonite Association for Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz) expressed continued concern over a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. The minister of interior and the high commissioner for peace launched an interagency working group in April on the role of religious organizations in the peace and reconciliation process to strengthen respect for religious diversity. The Episcopal Catholic Conference of Colombia (ECC) expressed concern about new requirements for tax-exempt status implemented during the year, which the ECC said limited the ability of religious nonprofit organizations to deliver social services in their communities.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that guerillas and organized illegal armed groups threatened leaders and members of religious organizations in many areas of the country.
The ECC stated that on March 10, unidentified individuals tortured and killed 68-year-old Father Dagoberto Noguera Avendano in Santa Marta. Justapaz reported that an unidentified illegal armed group threatened the organization via a pamphlet issued on July 14, due to its efforts to promote human rights and reconciliation. Justapaz reported the threat to the Attorney General’s Office and the MOI. The Jewish community reported continued comments promoting anti-Semitism on some social media sites, including aggressive actions by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Colombia, an anti-Israel protest movement that used anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jews control the media.” 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.
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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the International Affairs Directorate of the Attorney General’s Office, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. Embassy officials discussed with the MOI the new public policy on religious freedom and worship, including support for victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations at the national and local levels. 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, and Mennonites. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed issues related to the government’s new policy on religious freedom, conscientious objection, and the importance of eliminating institutionalized discrimination.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 48.1 million (July 2018 estimate). The Roman Catholic Church estimates 75 percent of the population is Catholic. According to a 2017 survey by 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, and Mennonites. The Colombian Confederation of Jewish Communities (CJCC) estimates there are approximately 5,000 Jews. 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 60 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
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. Recent 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. 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 an act of the 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 still perform religious activities without penalty but may not collect funds or receive donations.
The state recognizes as legally binding religious marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and 13 non-Catholic Christian denominations that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. This agreement enables 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 affiliates must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage. Non-Catholic religious groups seeking to provide chaplaincy services and conduct state-recognized marriages must also solicit formal state recognition from the MOI.
The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the education their child receives, 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 ($2,600 to $3,800), 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 are required to complete alternative, government-selected public service. The law requires that regional interagency commissions (Interdisciplinary Commissions on Conscientious Objection, or ICCOs), 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.
According to a law issued in 2016, as of January 2018, 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 continue to be tax-exempt, but now they must report their incomes and expenses to the National Tax and Customs Authority (DIAN).
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 force religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February the ECC objected to the Pereira municipal government’s denial of a permit application from members of the Catholic Church to organize a public march as part of the 40 Days for Life campaign. The ECC stated it believed the government had discriminated against citizens opposed to abortion and “confined their right to exercise their religious beliefs.” The ECC also expressed concern that new taxes on religious nonprofit organizations were limiting those organizations’ ability to deliver social services in their communities.
The MOI reported there were 7,292 formally recognized religious entities in the country at year’s end. It received 966 applications for formal recognition of religious entities, approved 632, and denied 21 due to the applying entity’s failure to meet the legal requirements and/or because the applying entity failed to provide missing information during the year. The MOI stated it continued to review the remaining applications. According to the MOI, the majority of applications were from evangelical Christian churches. The MOI gave 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 that there was no waiting period to reapply.
As part of the drafting process of the new comprehensive public policy on religious freedom and worship, the government reviewed petitions submitted in 2017 from the Traditional Episcopal Church and the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International to adhere to the 1997 public law agreement. The government determined that the regulations governing the 1997 agreement were incomplete. As of the end of the year, the two petitions were still in abeyance. The MOI reported the public policy would prioritize coordination with the different religious groups, including the Traditional Episcopal Church and the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International, to update the agreement, which would require a legislative change.
According to the MOI, the government provided technical assistance in all 32 departments across the country to raise awareness of the role of religious groups in supporting victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations, as well as to strengthen interreligious cooperation and tolerance at the local level. This assistance was part of the government’s implementation of its new public policy on religious freedom and worship. As of September four major cities (Bogota, Manizales, Santa Marta, and Villavicencio) and four departments (Meta, Santander, Caqueta, and Valle del Cauca) had adopted these new public policies on religious freedom. To implement these new public policies, two cities (Bogota and Manizales) and two departments (Caqueta and Valle del Cauca) established local interreligious committees that met at least monthly and included representatives from civil society and a wide range of local institutions. In May the Bogota mayor’s office introduced its public policy on religious freedom and awareness to protect individual and collective rights to worship and reduce religious discrimination. The new policy also established a Religious Freedom Committee, which includes a diverse range of religious denominations and faith-based communities.
According to religious groups, individuals continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from military service on religious grounds. Justapaz reported another increase in requests for conscientious objector status, which the organization believed was likely due to a 2017 law’s inclusion of conscientious objector status as a valid exemption from compulsory military service, as well as increased outreach by teachers and administrators in public and private schools. The National Army Reserve Recruitment and Control Command reported that 324 recruits were granted conscientious objector status since the law passed in August 2017. Justapaz stated that the ICCOs, which are lawfully established interagency commissions for evaluating requests for conscientious objector status, were staffed disproportionally by members of the armed forces. Justapaz said this staffing pattern ran counter to a 1998 UN resolution requiring that independent and impartial bodies evaluate objection requests to protect the rights to freedom of worship and of conscience.
The Colombian National Police, through the Protection and Special Services Directorate, continued to provide security for religious sites and leaders at risk and/or under threat, including a meeting of Catholic bishops, a conference of Muslim community leaders, and a Christian television station.
According to the MOI and religious leaders of several groups, the MOI started implementing its new public policy through structured interfaith dialogues and increased technical assistance. The MOI carried out 32 departmental workshops to assist local authorities and religious organizations on various aspects of the public policy, with a focus on taxes, religious facilities, and education.
The Bogota mayor’s office held roundtable discussions focused on children’s issues with leaders of religious organizations in February and June, and in July collaborated with the MOI to host a symposium on religious freedom and human dignity. The Bogota mayor’s office also highlighted its programs aimed at integrating the religious community into public policy discussions, including how to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the increasing number of Venezuelans residing in Colombia.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
As in past years, there were media and NGO reports that guerrillas and organized illegal armed groups threatened leaders and members of religious groups and targeted them for extortion.
The NGO Witness for Peace reported that guerrillas and illegal armed groups continued to threaten, displace, or attack religious leaders for promoting human rights, assisting internally displaced persons, assisting with land restitution claims, and discouraging coca cultivation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
A 2016 joint study by the Bogota mayor’s office and the National University of Colombia investigated cases of intolerance, discrimination, and religious persecution against religious leaders in the capital. Their study showed that, among those surveyed, 13 percent had received threats of violence, kidnapping, or extortion due to their religious beliefs. The ECC reported several cases of vandalism of religious property during the year, including during an April 28 attack by members of “satanic sects” on a Catholic church in Soacha Diocese, south of Bogota, during which the attackers burned the tabernacle holding consecrated hosts. The ECC also reported an attack on a Catholic church in the Castilla neighborhood of Bogota on May 22, which included death threats against Father Jesus Hernan Orjuela. According to media reports, the assailants entered the church during Mass, physically damaged the windows and doors of the church, took photos, and verbally harassed the congregants.
The ECC stated that on March 10, unknown assailants tortured, gagged, and killed 68-year-old Father Dagoberto Noguera Avendano in Santa Marta. According to the Attorney General’s Office, at year’s end, a homicide investigation continued in Santa Marta. The Attorney General’s Office awaited a response to its request for international judicial assistance.
Protestant leaders again stated that isolation and fear of retribution in rural communities led to underreporting of assault, harassment, and killings of clergy. Justapaz reported that an illegal armed group threatened Justapaz via a pamphlet issued on July 14, due to the organization’s efforts to promote human rights and reconciliation. Justapaz reported the threat to the Attorney General’s Office and the MOI. In response, the MOI said it was developing protective tools for pacifist religious groups as part of its ongoing implementation of the new public policy, including awareness campaigns involving protective and preventive security measures for religious leaders.
Given the presence of illegal armed actors in many parts of the country, religious leaders and faith-based NGOs said they continued to focus their efforts on ensuring the safety of their communities and assisting community members, many of them displaced persons or victims of conflict, with victim registration and restitution.
Justapaz continued to report threats from illegal armed groups and forced displacements of clergy and parishioners. Justapaz said pastors in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia Department, received threats from illegal armed groups that forced them to conclude their pastoral activities no later than 5:00 p.m., limiting the pastors’ ability to perform their religious duties in the community. Justapaz expressed concern that illegal armed groups were attempting to recruit minors with financial incentives, and that rival groups were in turn placing unofficial curfews on potential recruits, which restricted the Mennonite Church’s ability to conduct youth activities in Choco Department.
The Presbyterian Church reported forced displacements of its missionaries in Uraba, Antioquia Department, and threats by an illegal armed group against a Presbyterian pastor due to his work on peace initiatives. According to local media outlet El Tiempo, a Catholic priest in Ciudad Bolivar, a neighborhood in the south of Bogota, was forced to relocate in September after receiving four death threats in pamphlets most likely issued by members of criminal gangs.
The ECC expressed concern that a French high school in Pereira refused to allow three students, ages eight, nine, and 12, to enter on February 14 because they were wearing a Christian cross. The ECC also stated that the Colombia Humana citizens’ movement used religious symbols such as the Catholic stole and the Ten Commandments in a disrespectful manner during its presidential election campaign. The ECC expressed concern over an evangelical Christian pastor who destroyed an image of the Virgin Mary in Santa Cruz de Mompox, Bolivar, on July 16, during a Catholic holy day celebration, which the ECC said was “an offensive, violent act against Catholics.”
According to leaders of many religious groups, illegal armed groups were hindering peace and reconciliation programs, including those led by religious leaders, in rural areas where the state’s presence is weak.
Justapaz said it was working with the Truth Commission to raise awareness about violence and threats against social leaders, including from faith-based communities, and the Presbyterian Church highlighted its focus on education and youth-based peace programs.
A number of faith-based and interfaith NGOs continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement. The Colombian Confederation of Religious Freedom, Conscience, and Worship (CONFELIREC), which includes Protestant churches, the Islamic Cultural Center, and the Jewish community, continued to advocate for equality across all religious denominations through legal, social, and educational programs. Justapaz collaborated with the Catholic and Mennonite Churches, based on their shared commitment to religious diversity, to deliver humanitarian assistance in conflict-affected Bajo Cauca and Choco in October.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials discussed conscientious objection to military service and the effect of guerrilla and illegal armed groups on religious freedom with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the Attorney General’s Office, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. In celebration of International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, 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. Embassy representatives participated in government-sponsored religious freedom events, including a forum hosted by the Bogota mayor’s office May 14.
Embassy officials met with representatives from the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, Justapaz, Witness for Peace, the CJCC, and other faith-based NGOs –including Global Ministries, the Colombian Mennonite Foundation for Social Development, the Colombian Evangelical Council’s Peace Commission, and CONFELIREC. They discussed the impact of the post-peace accord period on religious freedom. At an annual embassy-hosted working group meeting in September, government representatives committed to work with all denominations to strengthen religious freedom across the country and underscored the critical role of religious groups in helping achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation. Religious community leaders outlined ways in which their organizations were participating in peacebuilding efforts, including through programs to improve and promote the human rights of social leaders.
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. In July the government removed the requirement that religious entities seeking to register must have at least 500 adult members, allowing any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization. According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and interfaith groups in the country, the changes in the registration regulations encouraged more minority religious groups to register with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom. Small non-Catholic groups said they were pleased with the removal of the registration prerequisite to receive certain tax and visa benefits and other government services. Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions.
Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage occasionally in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel. They said the government and both private and government-run media did not engage in this activity. Both Jewish and Muslim leaders said some public and private schools and employers occasionally did not give their members leave for religious holidays. The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including taxation exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains. The council continued to discuss the government’s revisions of its religious freedom regulations with religious communities. Religious groups and interfaith organizations coordinated with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 600,000 displaced Venezuelans in the country during the year, regardless of religious affiliation, with no reported efforts to proselytize, and to promote religious tolerance.
U.S. embassy officials discussed the 2011 religious freedom law and its 2016 implementing regulations with government representatives, emphasized the importance of equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, and discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to the influx of Venezuelans regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation. Embassy officials also engaged leaders from the Catholic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities to promote tolerance and respect for religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 31.3 million (July 2018). The 2017 national census reported the population as 76 percent Catholic (81 percent in 2007); 14 percent Protestant (mainly evangelical Protestant compared with 13 percent in 2007); 5.1 percent nonreligious; and 4.9 percent other religious groups. The other religious groups include Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Israelites of the New Universal Pact, Baha’is, Buddhists, Orthodox Christians (primarily Russian and Greek), and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
According to the Israel Information Center for Latin America, approximately 3,000 Jews reside in the country, primarily in Lima, Cusco, and Iquitos. According to the Muslim community, approximately 2,600 Muslims live in the country, with 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. The majority of Muslims are Sunni.
Some indigenous peoples in the far eastern Amazonian jungles practice traditional faiths. Many indigenous communities, particularly Catholics in the Andean highlands, practice a syncretic faith blending Christian and pre-Columbian beliefs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 development” of the country.
A 1980 concordat between the government and the Holy See accords the Catholic Church certain institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers. The subsequent 2011 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. By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.
The MOJ is responsible for engaging with religious groups.
The 2016 revised implementing regulations to the religious freedom law make registration with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom optional and voluntary. The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government. The revised regulations do not require government registration for a religious group to obtain institutional benefits, but doing so allows religious groups to engage with the government. They 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 provides assistance in completing the application forms.
According to the 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 that all schools, public and private, provide religious education through the primary and secondary levels, “without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.” The law permits only the teaching of Catholicism in public schools, 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 private schools and non-Catholic religious schools. Non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools are also exempt from classes on Catholicism. The law states schools may not academically disadvantage students seeking exemptions from Catholic education classes.
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 Office of Immigration of the Ministry of Interior. If the religious group registers with the MOJ, the immigration office accepts this as proof the applicant group is a religious organization. If the group does not register with the MOJ, the immigration office makes its decision on a case-by-case basis.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In July the government removed a 2016 requirement that religious entities seeking to register must have at least 500 adult members, changing it to allow any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization. At year’s end, the government had registered 133 non-Catholic groups that had voluntarily requested registration, an increase from 115 in 2017, including the Church of Jesus Christ and a number of small 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.
Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions. In its regular meetings with the MOJ, the Interreligious Council continued to press for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including tax exemptions on income, import duties, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and opportunities to serve as military chaplains. Members of the council said they were pleased with the new regulations and the government’s response to requests for tax benefits from non-Catholic religious groups.
The executive branch, through the MOJ, continued to engage religious communities on matters affecting the communities, including the registration process, taxation exemptions, religious worker visas, budgetary support for religious groups, and prisoners’ rights to religious practice. The MOJ continued to interact regularly with the public through its Office of Catholic Affairs and Office of Interfaith Affairs for non-Catholic Religious Groups. Government engagement with religious groups included regular conferences, workshops, and other interfaith meetings to discuss the registration process, joint charity campaigns, public outreach, and cultural events. The government and religious groups, including the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, and various Protestant churches, hosted these engagements for the entire community.
According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government continued to pay stipends to the Catholic cardinal, six archbishops, and approximately 1,000 other Catholic Church officials, totaling approximately 2.6 million soles ($770,000) annually. Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received remuneration from the government in addition to Church stipends, including 44 active bishops, four auxiliary bishops, and some priests. These individuals represented approximately one-eighth of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents. In addition, the government provided each Catholic diocese with a monthly institutional subsidy, based on the 1980 concordat with the Holy See. 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.
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.
MOJ representatives organized an interfaith meeting in March to coordinate religious community humanitarian support for approximately 600,000 Venezuelans in the country during the year and to ensure all religious groups provided services to them regardless of their religious affiliation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Interreligious Council continued its dialogue among religious entities including evangelical and other Protestant groups, as well as Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Church of Jesus Christ representatives. The council engaged religious communities on the government’s revised religious freedom regulations, the protection of religious freedom, and assistance to displaced Venezuelans regardless of their religious affiliation or no affiliation.
Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage occasionally in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media, usually focused on Israel, but they did not provide specific examples. They said the government and both private and government-run media did not engage in this activity. Muslim and Jewish community members again stated some public and private schools and employers occasionally required their members to use accumulated leave for non-Catholic religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.
At one well-attended interfaith event in October, the Church of Jesus Christ hosted an expert panel to discuss the importance of religious freedom, stressing this freedom includes the right to have no particular religion. Several government officials and former officials participated in the event.
Religious groups and interfaith organizations coordinated with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance, regardless of their religious affiliation, to the hundreds of thousands of displaced Venezuelans entering the country since 2015. There were no reported attempts to proselytize. Various evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches in Tumbes worked with the government, International Organization for Migration, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide temporary housing to Venezuelans entering the northern border.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials encouraged the government to apply the 2011 religious freedom law and its 2016 implementing regulations in a manner equally fair to all religious groups. Embassy officials discussed implementation of the revised regulations with government officials and advocated for additional changes to promote government respect for religious diversity and the equal treatment of all religious groups under the law. The embassy attended five interfaith events during the year, engaging both government and civil society participants on religious freedom topics.
Embassy officials met with representatives of the Interreligious Council, academics, the Catholic Church, Protestant and evangelical Protestant groups, and the Church of Jesus Christ, Jewish, and Muslim communities to discuss equal treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitism, the government’s implementation of the revised religious freedom regulations, and the voluntary registration of religious groups. Embassy officials encouraged religious groups to work together to provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans in the country regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation. The embassy featured the 2017 International Religious Freedom report on social media.