Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.5 million (midyear 2021). According to a February survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 43.3 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, 33.9 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 18.6 percent with no religious affiliation. Approximately 3 percent state “other,” which includes Anglicans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Approximately 1.2 percent of the population identifies as agnostic or atheist. 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 500 Muslims. According to Imam Emerson Bukele, President Nayib Bukele’s half-brother, the 20,000 estimate in 2020 likely represents individuals of Palestinian descent, most of whom are Christian and not Muslim.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On April 12, gang members assaulted an elderly priest, Father Gregorio Landaverde, in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Municipality, when he unknowingly drove into a gang-controlled neighborhood to find an alternative route around a traffic jam. When Landaverde, pastor of the Asuncion Pleca Parish in the Delgado Municipality, stopped to ask for directions, gang members immediately surrounded him and searched his truck, where they found a machete that he had used the previous day to clear land for relatives, which gang members said made the priest a potential threat. The gang members beat him with stones, took his wallet, and damaged his car. Landaverde was hospitalized, and the parish church cancelled Mass until Landaverde recovered.
In January, Father Manuel Acosta, a professor of theology at the Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, told Catholic press outlet Crux that he was disturbed about the violence against Catholic priests, including the thus far unexplained killings of three priests in fewer than three years ending in 2020. All were his former students. “I had no words,” said Acosta recalling his thought the morning he heard of the killing in August 2020 of yet another former student, Father Ricardo Cortez, who was found dead after being shot in the head.
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.
According to media, on July 28, security guards killed one thief and injured another when they attempted to rob the Los Heraldos del Evangelio Catholic Church in the Santa Elena neighborhood of San Salvador. A third assailant escaped. Authorities investigated the incident and charged the injured suspect with trespassing; he remained in detention and awaited trial at year’s end.
Media again reported, and religious leaders also said, former gang members who joined evangelical Protestant churches were allowed to leave their gang to dedicate themselves to their faith only after they gained approval from their gang leaders. According to the national police, conversion to an evangelical Protestant group was a way out of gang membership from which there was otherwise no exit. Gangs continued to monitor former members for years after they left the gang to ensure they were routinely attending church services and following strict religious practices. If the gang discovered the religious conversion was not authentic, the penalty for the deception was death. For some gangs, even if a member was allowed to leave for religious reasons, the member still could be called to rejoin the gang as needed. According to law enforcement representatives, the gangs used death threats against these former gang members or their families to force their return to the gang.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 12th annual study of restrictions on religion, issued in September but covering 2019, El Salvador had a moderate decrease in its social hostilities index compared with Pew’s 11th annual report issued in 2018 and covering 2019. The social hostilities index measured acts of religious hostility by private individuals and societal organizations or groups.