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Brazil

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and it guarantees free exercise of religious beliefs.  The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any religion.  On September 19, a court convicted three of 14 defendants of attempted homicide, which the court ruled was motivated by religious and racial discrimination related to a 2005 attack on three men wearing kippahs, Jewish head coverings.  In September the Public Ministry of Sergipe State, in conjunction with the Coordination for the Promotion of Ethnic-Racial Equality (COPIER), filed suit against the municipality of Aracaju for violation of religious freedom.  The Public Ministry filed the case on behalf of Yalorixa Valclides Francisca dos Anjos Silva after police officers accused her of practicing black magic and abusing animals.  In February the government-associated Brasilia-based Religious Diversity and Human Rights Advisory (ASDIR) and the National Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR) launched a national campaign entitled “Religious Diversity:  To Know, To Respect, To Value.”  The launch coincided with World Interfaith Harmony Week.  In April the Rio de Janeiro State government launched a program incorporating discussions on religious intolerance into the curriculum of 1,249 public schools in the state.  In May the Ministry of Culture, with the Palmares Cultural Foundation and University of Brasilia, released the results of the first ever mapping exercise of Umbanda and Candomble houses of worship, known as terreiros, documenting 330 terreiros in the Federal District.  In June the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies held a public hearing on the development of public policies to combat religious discrimination and intolerance.

Media reported Guarani-Kaiowas, an indigenous group from Mato Grosso do Sul, denounced frequent acts of violence, which they said evangelical Christians committed against their shamanic rituals.  According to media reports, unidentified individuals damaged religious buildings at various times throughout the year.  These acts included the destruction of religious objects and spray painting of hateful statements at an Afro-Brazilian terreiro in Rio de Janeiro in May, spray painting of swastikas on a church in Rio de Janeiro in October, and spray-painting “God is Gay” on a Roman Catholic church in Sao Paulo in the same month.  On May 18, unidentified individuals spray-painted messages on the walls of the Jewish Israelite Society of Pelotas building, threatening the Jewish community to “wait” for an “international intifada.”  The individuals also attempted to set fire to the building, causing minor damage.  Attacks on terreiros continued, two occurring in May and one in July.  Religious organizations hosted interfaith community events, including on September 16, the 11th Annual Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, which drew approximately 70,000 participants from across the religious spectrum, and on August 19, the Freedom Circuit three-kilometer and five-kilometer run in Brasilia.  According to the Ministry of Human Rights’ Secretariat of Human Rights (SDH), its hotline received 210 complaints of religious intolerance between January and June compared with 169 complaints during the same period in 2017.  The president of the Council for the Defense and Promotion of Religious Freedom for Rio de Janeiro State attributed the reported increase in religious intolerance to three factors:  “The creation of a service trusted by society, societal understanding that religious discrimination is a punishable crime, and increased aggression in religious confrontations.”

In October embassy officials engaged the Ministry of Human Rights’ coordinator for religious diversity, discussing the status of state religious diversity committees and plans for a potential conference on respect for religious diversity.  In February embassy officials attended the event commemorating the Federal District’s third annual Day to Combat Religious Intolerance.  In December an embassy official discussed with the public defender the increase in societal intolerance of African religions and the importance of applying the law to protect the religious freedom of these groups.  Sao Paulo consulate officials met with several evangelical Protestant leaders in the months leading up to the October elections – discussing the leaders’ views on the participation of religious groups in the political process and their priorities from a religious perspective.  Rio de Janeiro consulate officials visited an Afro-Brazilian terreiro in Duque de Caxias, in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro, in June to speak with Conceicao D’Liss, a priest leader of a Candomble terreiro.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 208.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2016 Datafolha survey, 50 percent of the population identified as Catholic, compared with 60 percent in 2014.  During the same period, the proportion of atheists increased from 6 percent to 14 percent, and the proportion of evangelical Protestants increased from 24 percent to 31 percent.  According to the 2010 census, 65 percent of the population is Catholic and 22 percent is Protestant.  Adherents of other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as followers of non-Christian religions, including Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and African and syncretic religious groups such as Candomble and Umbanda, comprise a combined 5 percent of the population.  Some Christians also practice Candomble and Umbanda.  Those identifying with no religion comprise 8 percent of the population.

According to the 2010 census, approximately 35,200 Muslims live in the country, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil states the number at approximately 1.5 million.  Some observers say the discrepancy in numbers may be because the 1.5 million figure may include the entire Arab-Brazilian population, all of whom the federation may assume are Muslim, but many of whom are Christian or adhere to other faiths.  Religious scholars estimate the actual number of Muslims to be between 400,000 and 500,000.  There are significant numbers of Muslims in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Foz do Iguazu, as well as in smaller cities in the states of Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.

According to the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, there are approximately 125,000 Jews, 65,000 of whom reside in Sao Paulo State and 25,000 in Rio de Janeiro State.  Many other cities have smaller Jewish communities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable and the free exercise of religious beliefs is guaranteed.  The constitution prohibits the federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any specific religion.  The law provides penalties of up to five years in prison for crimes of religious intolerance.  Courts may fine or imprison for two to five years any individual who displays, distributes, or broadcasts religiously intolerant material; the government did not apply the law during the year.  It is illegal to write, edit, publish, or sell literature that promotes religious intolerance.

Religious groups are not required to register to establish places of worship, train clergy, or proselytize, but groups seeking tax-exempt status must register with the Department of Federal Revenue and the local municipality.  States and municipalities have different requirements and regulations for obtaining tax-exempt status.  Most jurisdictions require groups to document the purpose of their congregation, provide an accounting of finances, and have a fire inspection of any house of worship.  Local zoning laws and noise ordinances may limit where a religious group may build houses of worship or hold ceremonies.

Government regulations require public schools to offer religious instruction, but neither the constitution nor legislation defines the parameters.  By law, the instruction should be nondenominational, conducted without proselytizing, and with alternative instruction for students who do not want to participate.  The law prohibits public subsidies to schools operated by religious organizations.

A constitutional provision provides the right of access to religious services and counsel individuals of all religions in all civil and military establishments.  The law states that public and private hospitals as well as civil or military prisons must comply with this provision.

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

Government Practices

According to media reports, on September 19, a court in Porto Alegre convicted three of 14 defendants of attempted homicide motivated by religious and racial discrimination related to a 2005 attack on three men wearing kippahs, Jewish head coverings.  The attack took place in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul State, on May 8, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.  The three convicted defendants were members of a group called Carecas do Brasil (Skinheads of Brazil) that disseminates anti-Semitic and Nazi content on the internet.  The three sentences totaled 38 years and eight months in prison.  According to media sources, the other 11 defendants in the case would also stand trial; however, by year’s end the court had not set a date.

In September the Public Ministry of Sergipe State, in conjunction with COPIER, filed suit against the municipality of Aracaju for violation of the constitutional right to religious freedom.  The Public Ministry filed the case for reparation of collective moral damages on behalf of Yalorixa Valclides Francisca dos Anjos Silva, who was at the Rei Hungria terreiro when six police officers and one official from the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment (MSE) searched her building alleging she practiced black magic and abused animals.  Dos Anjos Silva stated she suffered emotional trauma.  The Public Ministry required the municipality to pay 50,000 reais ($12,900).  The MSE stated it did not have a policy of restricting the right to use animals for religious worship and ritual and that the inspection was an isolated event carried out without the proper authorization and knowledge of the municipal secretary of the environment or the director of the department of environmental control.

Rio de Janeiro State’s hotline, called “Dial to Combat Discrimination,” continued to respond to a growing number of incidents targeting practitioners and terreiros.  The state government signed cooperation agreements with local universities to assist victims of religious intolerance.  According to the State Secretariat for Human Rights, between June and September the hotline received 32 calls and assisted 88 victims; no comparable information was available for 2017 because the hotline started operations in August 2017.  The secretariat stated 74 percent of the callers were followers of Afro-Brazilian religions.  The state also established the Police Station for Racial Crimes and Incidents Related to Religious Intolerance, created in August and officially launched in December.

On January 21, municipalities around the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance.  In Rio de Janeiro, the state governor signed a bill on January 19 to create the State Council for Promotion and Defense of Religious Freedom.  The council consists of 32 members from civil society, state officials, members of the Brazilian Bar Association, and religious groups.  In Bahia State, practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions and Black Movement nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) organized a debate and cultural activities at Tumba Junsara terreiro, Engenheiro Velho de Brotas in the state capital Salvador.  Other cities, including Sao Paulo and Recife, also held events.

In February Brasilia-based ASDIR and SEPPIR launched a campaign entitled “Religious Diversity:  To Know, To Respect, To Value.”  The launch coincided with World Interfaith Harmony Week.  The campaign launch featured a showing of the short film “By My Side” (“Do Meu Lado”), a panel discussion on the theme “Dialogue for Diversity,” and the launch of two publications, “Religious Intolerance in Brazil” and “Secular State, Intolerance, and Religious Diversity.”

In March the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) prohibited political campaigning in churches and religious spaces as well as in all public spaces.  The TSE made its ruling ahead of national elections on October 7 and October 28.  Some religious and civil society groups said they did not follow the ruling and continued to campaign for the candidates they supported.

In April the Municipal Office for the Respect of Religious Diversity in Rio de Janeiro organized an interfaith seminar for practitioners of different religions in Rio.  Approximately 120 individuals attended the event.

In April the Rio de Janeiro State government launched a joint program between the State Secretariat of Education and the State Secretariat of Human Rights and Women’s Policies to incorporate discussions of religious intolerance into the curriculum of all public schools in the state.  According to media, students across the state watched a video on religious tolerance produced by students participating in the More Human Education Program at the Pedro II State High School in the northeastern part of the state.  This video was the first in a series of five short films; according to media sources, other public schools in the state would also produce original videos, which students could view at school and access on social media platforms.  Student discussion would follow video screenings.

In May the Ministry of Culture, with the Palmares Cultural Foundation and the University of Brasilia, released the results of the first ever mapping exercise of Umbanda and Candomble terreiros in the Federal District.  The study verified the existence of 330 terreiros, of which 87.8 percent are in urban areas.  The majority of the terreiros – 58 percent – are Umbanda, while 33 percent are Candomble and 9 percent both.

In May the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly approved a bill to reduce prison sentences for prisoners who read the Bible.  Based on a general recommendation from the National Council of Justice (CNJ), the law reduced prison sentences for prisoners engaging in work, study, or reading.  The CNJ recommendation included reducing sentences by four days for every completed book with a limit of 12 books per year.  The Sao Paulo law allows prisoners to receive credit for each individual book in the Bible.  In June Federal Deputy Marco Antonio Cabral introduced similar legislation at the national level.

In June the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies held a public hearing on the development of public policies to combat religious discrimination and intolerance.  Attendees recommended the creation of police stations in each state dedicated to investigating crimes of racism and religious intolerance, thorough implementation of a law requiring an Afro-Brazilian history and culture class in all schools, a nationwide mapping of violence against followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, and financial compensation for victims of racism and religious intolerance.  In August Rio de Janeiro State inaugurated a police station dedicated to investigating crimes of race and intolerance.  The Federal District, Parana State, and Mato Grosso do Sul State continued to operate similar police stations.

In June the Religious Diversity Parliamentary Front of the Federal District Legislative Assembly held a seminar on Rights, Public Policy, Religion, and Racism.  The seminar included sessions on racism and religion; racial crimes, hate crimes, and combating intolerance; and public policies on combating racism and religious intolerance.

The Supreme Court case on the right to practice animal sacrifice as an element of religious ritual began on August 9.  The Public Ministry in Rio Grande do Sul State brought the case before the court, challenging a state court ruling permitting practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions to perform animal sacrifices.  Adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions said the criticism of and challenges to the practice of animal sacrifice were motivated more by racism than concern for the welfare of the animals, stating the practice of animal sacrifice was in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights.  On August 8, the eve of the Supreme Court vote, demonstrators gathered in the capitals of Bahia and Pernambuco States to defend animal sacrifice as part of their religious beliefs.  Rapporteur Justice Marco Aurelio and Justice Edson Fachim voted to uphold the state ruling; however, Justice Alexandre de Moraes requested additional time to review the case, which indefinitely postponed the final vote of the 11-member court pending the completion of the review.

On September 28, the Federal Court in Santa Catarina State overturned a regulation of the capital city of Florianopolis that restricted the hours of operation of terreiros.  The existing regulation adopted in 2013 required terreiros to acquire business permits, similar to bars; terreiros without business permits had to close by 2 a.m. every day and could not use candles.

On October 23, the Federal District commemorated its third annual Day to Combat Religious Intolerance.  The Ministry of Human Rights in partnership with the Federal District Committee for Religious Diversity hosted an interfaith event in Brasilia entitled “Intergenerational Meeting for Respect for Religious Diversity.”  Participants discussed the creation of a working group to arrange for public officials to visit places of worship and schools to emphasize the importance of religious tolerance.

A religious diversity specialist at the Ministry of Human Rights said five of the country’s 26 states – Amazonas, Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, Tocantins, and Rio de Janeiro – as well as the Federal District had committees for the respect of religious diversity.  The ministry also stated the 10-member National Committee for the Respect of Religious Diversity remained active, meeting four times during the year.

In May the State Secretariat of Human Rights launched the Itinerant Forum for the Promotion and Defense of Religious Freedom.  The forum assisted victims of religious intolerance in several municipalities in Rio de Janeiro State.  According to media, members of the forum visited the Afro-Brazilian terreiro Tenda Espirita Cabocla Mariana in Seropedica, Baixada Fluminense, and spoke to the terreiro priest who received death threats because of her religious leadership role.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media reported that Guarani-Kaiowas, an indigenous group from Mato Grosso do Sul, denounced what the group said were frequent acts of violence by evangelical Protestants against shamanic rituals of the Guarani-Kaiowas.  Izaque Joao, an indigenous researcher and historian, said, “The churches enter in large quantities into the indigenous communities, degrading the traditional culture and devaluing traditional beliefs.”  Spensy Pimentel, an anthropologist, journalist, and professor from Federal University of Southern Bahia, said, “The most visible facet of religious intolerance has been in incidents of the Umbanda and Candomble terreiros while the attacks on the indigenous groups remain covered up.”  Pimental also said, “Incidents of religious intolerance against shamanic believers are rarely registered, because many times they involve the elderly, who speak Portuguese poorly and aren’t accustomed to leaving their villages.”

In September Wicca Priestess Alana Morgana said she had been receiving death threats since the spread of rumors, including allegations she was involved in abductions and child sacrifices.  An origin for the rumors may have been an unauthorized video posted online on August 13 showing Morgana and other Wiccans participating in a religious ceremony in Rio de Janeiro State.  Morgana submitted a letter to local police requesting the removal of the video from the internet.  She stated this was the first time in 30 years she had suffered religious reprisals.  Media reported police continued to try to identify those who sent the death threats.

According to media reports, in May heavily armed drug traffickers raided a Candomble terreiro in Cordovil, a neighborhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  According to the State Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, they forced Didi Yemanja, the priestess on site, to leave the terreiro and expelled her from the community.  The alleged traffickers said, “She knew she was not allowed to have an Afro-Brazilian terreiro in the neighborhood.”  After the assailants expelled the religious leader, they remained near the terreiro to prevent other practitioners from entering.  Yemanja said for a few months prior to the incident, Candomble practitioners faced discrimination when wearing religious clothing in public in the neighborhood.  Yemanja said she decided not to press charges against the aggressors for fear of reprisals.

According to media reports, on May 18, unidentified individuals spray-painted messages on the walls of the Jewish Israelite Society of Pelotas building, telling the Jewish community to “wait” for an “international intifada”; they also attempted to set fire to the building but caused only minor damage.  This was the third incident to occur at this synagogue during the year.  In response to the incident, President of the Jewish Federation of Rio Grande do Sul Zalmir Chwartzmann said, “We will not tolerate this kind of attitude; an attack of this magnitude is an offense against the democratic state of law, against freedom of expression and religion, as well as a warning that hate speech is passing from theory to practice, importing a conflict that is not Brazilian and putting our entire society at risk.”

According to media reports, in July a group of unidentified individuals attacked a Candomble terreiro in Buzios in Rio de Janeiro State.  Practitioners were inside when a group of individuals threw stones at the building, damaging the roof but not hurting anyone inside.  Rio de Janeiro State police opened an investigation, which continued through the end of the year.

Media reported that in May a group of vandals entered the Spiritist Center Caboclo Pena Branca terreiro in Baixada Fluminense, setting fire to some areas of the terreiro, destroying sacred objects, and spray-painting messages such as “get out of here macumbeiros (witches)” and “this is no place for macumba (witchcraft).”  Followers of Afro-Brazilian religions said these terms were derogatory when nonpractitioners used them.

In September the Jewish Israelite Federation of Rio de Janeiro reported that individuals spray-painted a swastika on a wall of a residence decorated with a mezuzah in the Zona Sul area of the city.  They said police were trying to identify the attackers.

According to media, on October 4, individuals vandalized the Church of Our Lady of Aparecida in the center of Teodoro Sampaio in Sao Paulo State.  The assailants spray painted “God is gay” on the walls of the church.  According to media, police identified two female suspects, but it was unclear whether police detained anyone.

Media reported that on October 17, police arrested two individuals suspected of vandalizing the Sao Pedro da Serra chapel in Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro State.  Police used security camera footage to identify the men who spray-painted swastikas.  A third individual turned himself in to police authorities.

Between January and June SDH’s nationwide Dial 100 human rights hotline registered 210 complaints related to cases of religious intolerance.  The number of complaints during the comparable period of 2017 was 169.

According to the Bahia State Secretariat, there were 47 cases of religious intolerance in the state during the year, compared with 21 cases in 2017.

As of September the Sao Paulo Secretariat of Justice registered 5,290 reports of religious intolerance in the state.  All of the reports were of “verbal harassment” and were under police investigation as cases of defamation, libel, or slander.  The Brazilian National Movement against Religious Intolerance, created in 2016, sent 13 cases to the Public Ministry of Sao Paulo for further legal proceedings.  These cases involved followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, who said they were subjected to slurs such as “son of Satan” or “Satan’s envoy.”

The Mato Grosso do Sul State Secretariat of Justice and Human Rights and the coordinator of racial equality reported the number of cases of religious intolerance in the state increased 800 percent compared with 2017.

According to the State Secretariat for Human Rights, in Rio de Janeiro there was a 51 percent increase in incidents of religious intolerance from 2017 to 2018.  From January until the first week of December, there were 103 incidents of religious intolerance, compared with 68 incidents during the same period in 2017.  According to the State Secretariat for Human Rights, African religious groups experienced the greatest number of incidents, with 31 percent of complaints involving practitioners of Candomble, 26 percent other African religions, and 17 percent Umbanda.  The municipalities with the highest record of incidents were Rio de Janeiro, Nova Iguacu, and Duque de Caxias – with 49 percent, 10 percent, and 7 percent of incidents occurring in these municipalities, respectively.  Marcio de Jagun, president of the Council for the Defense and Promotion of Religious Freedom, said, “The increase in cases of religious intolerance can be attributed to three factors:  the creation of a service in which society trusts, societal understanding that religious discrimination is a punishable crime, and increased aggression in religious confrontations.”

In January the Parana State chapter of the NGO Collective of Negro Entities (CEN) signed a technical cooperation agreement with the Center for Legal Practice at University Positivo and the state’s Public Defender’s Office for the provision of legal counsel in cases of religious intolerance and racism.  CEN also formed a group of researchers with expertise on the Umbanda and Candomble religions.  The research group said it would produce articles on terreiros and the religious impact of laws and public policy.

Media reported that on August 19, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with support from the Brazilian Bar Association in the Federal District (DF), Regional Psychology Council, Religious Diversity Parliamentary Front of the DF Legislative Assembly, and DF Religious Diversity Committee, organized the first Freedom Circuit run in Brasilia.  The objective of the event was to promote respect, tolerance, and understanding of religion.  More than 100 individuals from various religious faiths participated, during which organizers collected signatures in support of a local bill to combat religious intolerance in public schools in the Federal District.

On September 16, the NGO Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance organized the 11th Annual Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.  Organizers estimated the event drew approximately 70,000 practitioners from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds, including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and atheists.

The religious freedom commissions of chapters of the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) across the country remained active throughout the year.  OAB Recife organized a panel presentation on Citizenship, Human Rights, and Religious Freedom on April 12.  OAB Bahia hosted an event called “Islamophobia” in Brazil on May 10.  OAB Ceara held a workshop on religious freedom on May 22.  OAB Sao Paulo hosted its sixth State Congress on rights and religious liberty on May 25, as well as a discussion on Religious Freedom and Economic Development on September 6.

The Jewish Museum of Sao Paulo, built on the remains of Beth-El Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the city, was under construction during the year.  Funding for the museum was raised primarily through private investors and the local community.

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, 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

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.  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.

Government Practices

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.

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