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Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution provides the government will grant the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. Several religious groups expressed frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups in order to be eligible for tax-exempt status, receive visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities, noting that the Catholic Church was exempt from this requirement. The government continued its investigation into the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center and a subsequent cover-up, reiterating demands for Iranian cooperation in bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice. Legal action continued against Tucuman Province over the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Santiago Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province. Government officials sponsored and participated in interfaith events throughout the year, including an interfaith iftar, at which then-foreign minister Jorge Faurie emphasized the country’s prioritization of coexistence among religions.

On February 25, at least five individuals broke into the house of Grand Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich in Buenos Aires, beating him and causing injuries that resulted in his hospitalization for one week. The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites, and DAIA stated the spike tracked with an increase in news stories about the Jewish community during the year, including an institutional crisis that led to the resignation of DAIA’s president. In October protesters opposed to the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. In July religious groups, including the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and the Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric, organized the National Table for Interreligious Coordination (MECIN). In March the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic (CIRA), AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, including within the Secretariat of Worship and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination. Embassy outreach efforts included regular meetings with government officials and religious and community leaders to discuss the status of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism. In August the Ambassador gave keynote remarks on countering online hate speech and discrimination based on religion at a conference in Tucuman Province. On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. Eighteen other diplomatic missions participated in the event, and the Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice, and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 45.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Religious demographic and statistical data from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research centers, and religious leaders vary. According to a 2019 survey by Conicet, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown. Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population. According to AMIA, there are 220,000 Jews in the country, and the Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000. Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available. There is also a small number of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions in the country; however, no data are available on the size of these groups.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith. It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.

The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies. The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA. Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the General Inspectorate of Justice.

Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit. Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.

The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.

Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.

The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.

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

Government Practices

At year’s end, the trial of former president and current Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner remained pending, following her 2017 indictment for concealment in relation to a 2013 memorandum of understanding she signed with Iran. Prosecutors stated that then-president Fernandez de Kirchner and several high-ranking officials sought to cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 persons. AMIA, DAIA, and organizations representing the victims’ families continued to call for justice and a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the bombing and any attempts at a cover-up, stating that the truth remained unclear.

In an unrelated case, a court acquitted former president Carlos Menem in February of charges he had sought to derail investigations into the AMIA bombing while president, citing lack of evidence. AMIA and DAIA issued a joint communique stating they respected the verdict. An NGO representing many of the victims’ families, Memoria Activa (Active Memory), criticized the decision, stating the Menem government knew the attack would happen and did nothing to avoid it.

Judicial inquiries continued into the 2015 death of Alberto Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor investigating the AMIA bombing. On December 26, the newly appointed Minister of Security, Sabina Frederic, announced her intent to review a 2017 analysis by the National Gendarmerie that stated two assailants killed Nisman. The analysis contradicted expert Federal Police testimony made in 2017 that suggested Nisman had committed suicide. Investigators accused Frederic of using the power of the executive branch to meddle in judicial matters, while Nisman’s mother, Sara Garfunkel, requested the judiciary’s assistance in preventing the review.

In September at the UN General Assembly, then-president Mauricio Macri called for increased international pressure to compel Iran to cooperate in the investigation of the AMIA attack, as well as that of the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

Representatives of several religious groups stated that a government requirement that religious groups register first with the Ministry of Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, stating that the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were required to request tax-exempt status, apply for visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities. Religious group representatives said religious groups deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.

According to the plaintiffs, there was no progress in the 2018 case filed by a group of parents in Tucuman Province opposing the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. The parents cited a 2017 Supreme Court decision that incorporation of religious education in public schools in Salta Province was unconstitutional. In August local media reported on a new case of religious teaching in a school in Formosa Province in which the school director invited a group of nuns to speak to a class during school hours without permission from the regional ministry of education or from the parents of the children. Parents said the nuns proselytized by teaching the children to pray and distributing rosaries and pamphlets. Formosa’s education minister later stated the school’s director made an error and could face disciplinary action.

Numerous religious and prolife groups, including evangelical Christian churches, expressed concern over the case of a doctor arrested for refusing to perform an abortion. In October a court in Rio Negro Province gave Leandro Rodriguez a suspended sentence of one year and two months for misconduct and prohibited him from practicing medicine for two years and four months, after he did not perform a legally permitted abortion for a woman who had been raped. In 2017 Rodriguez treated a woman suffering from severe pain and an infection after taking misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug in her fifth month of pregnancy. Rodriguez treated the infection and halted the abortion. Three months later, the woman delivered the baby and offered it for adoption. Rodriguez’s legal team said he had halted the abortion on medical grounds and the patient had agreed to continue the pregnancy and give the baby for adoption; however, some religious groups, including local evangelical churches, said the case set a precedent against abortion-related conscientious objection.

At the end of its term in December, the Macri administration sent a new draft religious freedom bill to congress for its consideration. First proposed in 2017, the draft bill would have eliminated the requirement that non-Catholic religious groups register with the government to receive the same benefits accorded to the Catholic Church. An earlier draft of the bill allowed for conscientious objection on the basis of religion, but drafters did not include that provision in the new bill. Separately, the outgoing congress approved a draft bill in November that would declare November 25 the National Day of Religious Freedom and Conscience. The bill continued under senate review through year’s end.

Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following the December 2018 agreement between the government and the CEA, representing the Catholic Church, which delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. CEA leaders reported progress on the matter during plenary sessions held in November. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from 130 million pesos ($2.2 million) in 2018 to 126 million pesos ($2.1 million) during the year.

Throughout the year, Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province in elections held in October. Among other incidents cited by the organizations, in a July 2 televised interview Cuneo promoted conspiracy theories about a purported Jewish plot to take over Patagonia. He also repeated claims, first made in 2018, that then-president Macri had staffed the national intelligence agency with Mossad agents.

Many Jewish groups said they continued to view relations with the Macri administration as positive and productive. They said collaboration was positive, particularly in light of what they characterized as the administration’s commitment to resolve the Nisman killing and to pursue justice in its investigations of the 1994 AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy.

Secretary of Worship Alfredo Miguel Abriani, the human rights secretary, the Buenos Aires director general for religious affairs, and other government representatives continued to host and attend religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches.

In May the MFA organized an interfaith iftar; both then-foreign minister Faurie and then-secretary of worship Abriani delivered remarks underscoring the importance of tolerance and coexistence, as well as the government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom.

On August 21, the City of Buenos Aires organized a lunch to promote interfaith collaboration. Approximately 50 religious leaders attended. Buenos Aires Chief of Government Horacio Rodriguez Larreta pledged to continue “generating spaces for engagement and exchange” and affirmed his desire to create a city that would be ever-increasingly open and inclusive.

On September 15, the City of Buenos Aires organized an interreligious festival to promote dialogue. More than 70 faith communities participated with stands showcasing their respective identities and activities.

In September INADI reported it organized a youth parliament with local students. Playing the role of legislators, the students debated the topics of conscientious objection, mandatory religious education, and religious discrimination. By a vote of 69 to one, with one abstention, they approved a law on “freedom of religion without discrimination,” promoting religious diversity in education, health, and the workplace.

In May DAIA held a Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Kirchner Cultural Center in downtown Buenos Aires. Then-minister of culture, science, and technology Alejandro Finocchiaro delivered remarks alongside Jewish community leaders and a Holocaust survivor, underscoring the value of life and of “rebellion,” adding, “glory and eternal memory for all who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto and around the world.” Then-president Macri did not attend the ceremony but recorded a video for it after touring the building earlier in the day.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

DAIA reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017, a 107 percent increase. The report noted that 30 percent of the incidents occurred in May 2018, when DAIA faced a very public institutional crisis that led to the resignation of its president. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites and social media, which made up 88 percent of the reported acts. Included among these were xenophobic and nationalistic commentaries, as well as the propagation of conspiracy theories and references to Jewish individuals as avaricious or exploitative. Other recorded acts included graffiti, verbal slurs, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

Between April and June, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducted a survey to update the understanding of attitudes and opinions toward Jews in 18 countries around the world. In November the ADL released the results of the survey for each country, detailing the scope of anti-Semitic views among the country’s residents. The survey cited 11 stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they agreed with them. The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was as follows: 57 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Argentina; 53 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; 60 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust; 36 percent that Jews do not care what happens to anyone but their own kind; 28 percent that Jews think they are better than others; and 35 percent that other persons hate Jews because of the way they behave. According to the survey, 30 percent of the population harbored anti-Semitic views – compared with 24 percent in 2015 – which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that the majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”

On October 13, protesters associated with the 34th National Women’s Meeting and others attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. Some protesters also threw stones at police and churchgoers. According to local media, the cathedral suffered minor damage because of the protest. Some protesters carried signs accusing the church of covering up sexual abuse. On April 29, hundreds of individuals delivered a new abortion bill to congress. On May 28, abortion activists led peaceful protests outside the congress, proposing the new abortion bill go before the legislature. In 2018 the senate rejected the previous abortion bill.

In February nine gravestones in a Jewish cemetery were vandalized by unidentified individuals in San Luis City. The cemetery’s security cameras were vandalized and broken shortly before the incident. The attackers climbed the wall, destroyed marble headstones, bronze plates, and other objects. On September 29, individuals destroyed a large section of the wall at La Tablada, the country’s largest Jewish cemetery, located near Buenos Aires. They also damaged several tombs and stole bronze plaques. Then-secretary for human rights Claudio Avruj denounced the vandalism; he expressed his sadness and indignation, stating the events took place just hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.

According to local media, individuals broke into the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute in San Luis, San Luis Province, in early October, leaving behind anti-Catholic graffiti, including “Murderous Church,” “Pedophile Priests,” and “God Does Not Exist.” School authorities reported the individuals destroyed images and paintings of the Virgin Mary, as well as student artwork.

Interreligious groups such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges. The committee published frequent newspaper articles and held events to include a prayer for Syria and an annual blanket drive for families in need.

In July several religious groups organized MECIN at the senate in Buenos Aires. Participating groups included the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric. MECIN representatives said they would seek to strengthen the country’s social fabric through dialogue.

In March CIRA, AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis. The declaration, an updated version of a similar document signed in 2005 by then-archbishop Jorge Bergoglio and his peers in the interreligious community, affirmed the commitment of all involved not to permit religious conflicts from other parts of the world to affect the fraternity among religious communities in the country.

In June the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue organized an iftar during Ramadan, hosting members of the Muslim community and the Jewish Bet El congregation. Religious and community leaders including the president of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina, the president of AMIA, and the City of Buenos Aires’ director for religious affairs attended.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with government representatives, including within the Secretariat of Worship, the MFA’s human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed tolerance, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination. In meetings with the Secretariat of Worship, embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and discussed the status of the AMIA case and ways to counter anti-Semitism.

Embassy outreach included regular meetings with religious and community leaders, including members of interreligious organizations. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, as well as the conditions; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism and promote religious tolerance. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs focused on social work and community service, including Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and evangelical Christian leaders, and discussed promoting respect for religious diversity as well as faith-based responses to poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and malnutrition.

On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. The event was held at the Ambassador’s residence, and 18 fellow diplomatic missions participated in the event. The Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack.

Embassy officials regularly attended conferences, observances, and commemorations organized by religious groups and NGOs, including DAIA, AMIA, Latin American Jewish Congress, and the CEA. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media, including conveying condolences on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing.

Belize

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. By law, the Council of Churches and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC) together appoint a “church senator” to the Senate, with the concurrence of the governor general. The church senator provides advice on how public policy affects the political positions of religious groups. Nondenominational “spirituality” classes, including morals, values, and world religions, are taught in public schools; opt outs are possible. The government continued to engage religious groups on its stated commitment to fostering tolerance for religious minorities, protecting religious freedom, and ensuring equal protection under the law. The government continued to permit religious leaders from varying denominations to visit the government-owned and -financed central prison to hold services at its nondenominational chapel.

Religious groups continued collaboration with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out missionary work in the country. The interfaith Belize Chaplain Service (BCS) continued to promote several initiatives, including counseling services for relatives of crime victims and for police officers, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public. The BCS supported the government’s decision to submit the border dispute with Guatemala to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) based on council members’ religious belief in social justice.

U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, met with government officials to emphasize the importance of continued government engagement with a wide spectrum of religious groups, including Christians and non-Christian religious minorities. The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including religious minorities, to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance and in addressing crime.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 393,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, members of the Roman Catholic Church are the largest religious group, accounting for 40 percent of the population. Protestants make up 32 percent, including Pentecostals (8 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Mennonites (4 percent), Baptists (4 percent), Methodists (3 percent), and the Church of the Nazarene (3 percent). Jehovah’s Witnesses make up 2 percent of the population, while other religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Rastafarians, the Salvation Army, and Baha’is, together constitute 11 percent. Approximately 15 percent of the population does not affiliate with one of these listed religious organizations.

No religious group is a majority in any of the country’s six districts. Catholics reside throughout the country. Mennonites and Pentecostals reside mostly in the rural areas of the Cayo and Orange Walk Districts.

The country is also home to smaller religious communities. Soka Gakkai International-Belize (a Buddhist association) has a temple in Belize City, but there are no precise figures on its membership. The 2010 census lists 577 Muslims in the country; this number does not include the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat group, which according to its leaders, numbers fewer than 160 individuals. Indigenous groups, including the Maya and the Garifuna, also practice traditional folk religious rituals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom – either alone or in community with others – to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It states that no one may be compelled to take an oath contrary to one’s religion or belief. The constitution stipulates that religious groups may establish places of education and states that “no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.” Discrimination on religious grounds is illegal.

The preamble to the constitution acknowledges “the supremacy of God.”

An unenforced law limits speech that is “blasphemous or indecent.”

By law, the Council of Churches, a board including representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the BAEC together appoint one individual, called the “church senator,” to the Senate with the governor general’s concurrence. The two groups together include the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches, Salvation Army, Chinese Christian Mission, Church of Christ, Assembly of God Church, Seventh-day Adventists, and other evangelical Protestant groups. They do not include the National Evangelical Association of Belize), which separated from the BAEC in 2015 due to political differences, or any non-Christian denominations.

By law, the church senator provides advice on public policy affecting the political positions of religious groups. This senatorial seat places the political interests of religious leaders on par with the three other senators appointed to represent labor unions, the business community, and the NGO community. The Senate is the upper chamber of the country’s two-part National Assembly; members of the House of Representatives run for election, while senators are appointed.

The law requires all religious groups to register with the official Companies Registry in the Ministry of the Attorney General in a process similar to that of a business. Registration permits the religious organization to operate legally in the country; receive state recognition; negotiate, sue, and be sued; own property; hire employees; and lend or borrow money. There is a one-time registration fee of 295 Belize dollars ($150) and a yearly fee of five Belize dollars ($3). Requirements for registration include a memorandum of association with the government delineating the group’s objective and mission, an article of association, and a letter from the central bank if the organization has foreign financial contributors. The government may shut down the facilities of groups that fail to register.

The government does not levy property taxes on churches and other places of worship. Other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis, such as clergy residences, are not tax-exempt. Religious organizations may also partner with the state to operate schools, hospitals, and other charity organizations and, depending on funding availability, receive financial assistance from the government.

The public school curriculum includes weekly nondenominational “spirituality” classes incorporating morals and values. Government-aided church-run schools may teach lessons on world religions for students from kindergarten through eighth grade as part of their social studies curriculum. These church-run schools also offer separate religious education classes that are specific to their own faith. While there is no official rule governing a student’s ability to opt out of either of these sessions, parents may decide their children will not attend. The constitution prohibits any educational institution from obligating a child to attend any religious ceremonies or observances. Due to insufficient government funds, Christian churches manage most public elementary schools, high schools, and some colleges. Schools routinely observe Catholic and other Christian holidays at the schools’ discretion. Non-Christian religious groups run a few schools, such as the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize City. All schools, public and private, must adhere to government regulations; the Ministry of Education monitors their compliance.

The law grants respect for inmates’ religious beliefs, and inmates may participate in religious activities in prison. Religious leaders may request use of the chapel inside the facility and offer religious services to inmates. Prison authorities avoid requiring unnecessary work by prisoners on Sunday and other major Christian religious holidays (Christmas and Good Friday) and by prisoners recorded as belonging to other religions on their recognized day of religious observance. The law allows the provision of religious scriptures and other books of religious observance to prisoners.

To enter the country and proselytize, foreign religious workers need a multi-entry visa, which costs 100 Belize dollars ($50) and is valid for one year. Applicants must also purchase a religious worker’s permit, costing 50 Belize dollars ($25). The visas are renewable on an annual basis. Visa requirements include information on intended length of stay, location, funding for activity, and specific purpose. Members of all religious groups are eligible to obtain visas. While a group does not need to be locally registered, recommendation by a locally registered religious group lends more credibility to the visa request, according to local authorities.

The Belize Defense Force retains a nondenominational chaplain and space for religious observance. With the prior consent of authorities, any religious group may use the space for worship.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to engage religious groups in discussions to foster tolerance for religious minorities, protect religious freedom, and ensure equal protection under the law.

The government held discussions with the Council of Churches, Church Senator Ashley Rocke, who is a Baptist pastor, and several other religious leaders to keep them abreast of government plans of interest to them, including the education budget. According to the head of the Council of Churches, while by law the church senator represents all religions, there was little response from non-Christian religious groups to the church senator’s efforts to seek their political perspectives.

The government continued to permit religious leaders from varying denominations to visit the government-owned and -financed central prison to hold services at the prison’s nondenominational chapel. A representative of the Kolbe Foundation, the Catholic organization running the prison, said prison officials continued to respect dietary restrictions for prisoners of diverse religious backgrounds. Several religious groups, including Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists, Nazarenes, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baptists, and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to make frequent use of the access to clergy granted by the prison administration.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local religious groups, especially from evangelical Protestant denominations, continued to cooperate with international NGOs and religious partners from the United States and Canada to carry out missionary work in the country. They held joint conferences and outreach activities to address health, poverty, and education issues.

Thirteen registered religious-based radio stations continued to operate in the country. According to the Belize Broadcasting Authority, evangelical Protestant groups continued to own and operate most of the stations. Other stations included one Catholic, two Mennonite, and one Pentecostal radio station.

The interfaith BCS, which includes representatives from the Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, Salvation Army, Chinese Christian Mission, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal Churches, as well as Muslim and Baha’i leaders, continued to promote counseling services for relatives of crime victims, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public. The BCS continued to offer services to the central prison and to the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital staff, patients, and relatives. The BCS ran the chapel at the hospital, offering weekly Sunday services and Islamic prayers on Fridays. In February the BCS advised the national electorate to support submitting the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute to the ICJ for resolution. In its press release, the council supported the ICJ submission based on its members’ religious beliefs that it was “a matter of social justice in fostering a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute at hand.”

The Council of Churches invited representatives from minority religious groups, including Buddhists, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims, and Baha’is to participate in discussions about joint community projects.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires met with government officials to emphasize the importance of continuing to engage with a wide spectrum of religious groups in the country, including with Christians and non-Christian religious minorities. Minority religious groups that embassy officials discussed with the government included Buddhists of Chinese and Southwest Asian origins, Hindus of Indian origin, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, and other small religious groups, including the Garifuna Afro-indigenous religions and Mayan folk religionists. The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including Bishop Philip Wright, Bishop Lawrence Nicassio, and representatives of religious minorities to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance, including combating violent extremism, and in addressing crime.

Bolivia

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the state is independent of religion and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion, and worship, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private.” The constitution and other laws accord educational institutions the right to teach religion, including indigenous spiritual belief classes. President Evo Morales resigned on November 10, following massive protests against what were widely considered fraudulent October 20 elections, with transitional President Jeanine Anez assuming power on November 12 until new elections, expected to take place in May 2020. According to some observers, both Morales and Anez used religious and spiritual symbolism that was exclusionary of other beliefs. In April then president Morales signed the Law of Religious Freedom, Religious Organizations and Spiritual Beliefs, which creates a clear distinction between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious organizations. Parts of the law were implemented by year’s end. Evangelical Protestant community representatives again reported several smaller religious communities with “house churches” preferred not to register their organizations because they did not want to provide the government with access to private internal information.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

U.S. embassy access to government officials under the Morales administration was limited despite embassy requests for meetings. The transitional government showed interest in engaging the U.S. government, although no discussions on religious freedom took place with embassy officials in the few weeks the transition government was in office before the end of the year. Embassy staff regularly met with religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom. The Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith meeting for religious leaders in October, including representatives from Protestant and Jewish groups, and from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), to engage them in interfaith dialogue and discuss the new religious freedom bill. Embassy officials met on other occasions with representatives from Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic groups to discuss new religious freedom legislation and other religious freedom topics.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (midyear 2019 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 followers reside in the country; the Church of Jesus Christ’s central website estimates more than 200,000 followers. Approximately 5 percent of the population identifies with smaller religious groups and 5 percent self-identify as nonbelievers. There are approximately 1,500 Muslims and 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

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the state respects and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion and worship,” 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 Freedom of Religion, Religious Organizations, and Spiritual Organizations Law, signed by then president Morales in April, and partially implemented by year’s end, creates a clear distinction between NGOs and religious organizations. The law continues to require all religious or spiritual organizations to inform the government of all financial, legal, social, and religious activities. The law regulates religious or spiritual organizations’ finances and labor practices by requiring they use funds exclusively to achieve the organization’s objectives, banning the distribution of money among members, subjecting all employees to national labor laws, requiring the organizations to register with the MFA, and compelling them to pay taxes. Until the complete regulations are published, the existing laws for registration and regulations remain in place.

The existing law requires religious or spiritual organizations to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and inform the government of all financial, legal, social, and religious activities. It regulates religious or spiritual organizations’ finances and labor practices by requiring they use funds exclusively to achieve the organization’s objectives, banning the distribution of money among members, subjecting all employees to national labor laws, and compelling them to pay taxes. Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from registration.

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 were required to comply with these new registration requirements by the end of 2019.

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 ($600), 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.

Government Practices

Following the resignation of former president Morales in November after massive protests against what were widely considered fraudulent October 20 elections and the installation of transitional President Anez, media reported some observers criticized Anez for taking the oath of office over a large Bible and using Catholic imagery, in contrast with Morales’ use of indigenous ceremonies. During the promulgation of the law for Freedom of Religion, Religious Organizations, and Spiritual Beliefs, media reports stated then president Morales “attacked” the Catholic Church, stating, “I am informed that a bishop from the city of Oruro celebrating Mass, said that Satan is in the [Presidential] Palace. I am not resentful, we forgive. I asked: Who is that Satan? Evo? Or the rites?”

According to leaders within the religious community, leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ and evangelical Protestants were involved in drafting the religious freedom law. Media reported some nonevangelical Protestant churches viewed the new law as an interference by the state in the fundamental right to freedom of religion and an oversight of its economic resources. By year’s end, the government had not issued specific regulations for all aspects of the new law that would detail how the government intended to implement it.

Members of the evangelical Protestant community again said several smaller religious communities had formed congregations that held services at unofficial worship locations and conducted other activities without registering. These communities continued to refuse to register their organizations because, according to sources, they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal information. Sources stated these unregistered groups still could neither own property nor have bank accounts in their organization’s name; instead money for a group was generally held in a bank account controlled by the leader’s family. According to sources, however, the Morales administration did not interfere with these organizations despite their refusal to comply with the law.

According to the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations, there were 438 registered religious groups, an increase from 436 in 2018, after four groups withdrew their respective registrations toward the end of 2018. According to religious leaders, nearly all known religious or spiritual organizations that wished to register with the government had complied with the requirements. Religious groups stated that the registration process generally took four to six months to complete.

According to some nonevangelical Protestant groups, evangelicals received preferential access to the Morales government, which included meetings and phone calls with previous government leaders, because they were the main religious organization represented while drafting the new religion law.

According to media reports and religious leaders, then president Morales and other Movement for Socialism-affiliated government leaders continued to criticize Catholic leaders who publicly commented on political issues. Catholic representatives said the longstanding public tensions between the Catholic community and the Morales government continued through the end of the administration.

According to media, then president Morales also criticized the Catholic Church for its actions during the Inquisition and for what he said was its role in subjugating Bolivians during colonial times. Following the October 20 presidential elections, then minister of the presidency Juan Ramon Quintana stated “outside actors,” including the Catholic Church, aligned with the opposition to sow fears of fraud. Quintana said in an interview with media, “fraud is an alibi that was installed a long time ago in the media networks, through contracted opinion makers, nongovernmental organizations with foreign funding, and the Catholic Church aligned with the right.”

According to media, Luis Fernando Camacho, then chair of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz and a major critic of then president Morales, launched a campaign calling for Morales’ resignation and to “bring the Bible back to the palace of government.” On November 10, Camacho entered the old Government Palace with a Bible and a resignation letter for Morales to sign; Morales was not in the palace at the time, but he resigned later that day.

On May 24, then president Morales signed an agreement with the Methodist Church to establish better communication with the government and increased cooperation for social justice programming. On November 28, Foreign Minister Karen Longaric announced at a press roundtable that the government would re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Then president Morales broke ties with Israel in 2009 over the conflict in Gaza.

On November 28, Foreign Minister Karen Longaric announced at a press roundtable that the government would re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Then president Morales broke ties with Israel in 2009 over the conflict in Gaza.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government access to Morales government officials in the previous administration was limited despite embassy requests for meetings. The transitional government showed interest in engaging the U.S. government, although no discussions on religious freedom took place with embassy officials in the few weeks the transition government was in office through year’s end.

Embassy representatives routinely engaged religious leaders to underscore the importance of tolerance and religious freedom. In October the Charge d’Affaires hosted interfaith meetings for religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ, and Jewish communities to discuss religious freedom issues, such as the new religious freedom law, and to encourage religious leaders to engage in interfaith dialogue. On other occasions, embassy officials engaged leaders of evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim groups.

Brazil

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and it provides for the free exercise of religious beliefs. The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any religion. In March the Federal Supreme Court (STF) ruled animal sacrifice in religious rituals was constitutional, noting special protection for traditional Afro-Brazilian religions was necessary due to the country’s history of discrimination against these religions. The Rio Grande do Sul State Court of Justice continued the prosecution of individuals charged in a 2005 anti-Semitic attack against three men wearing kippahs in Porto Alegre, the state capital. In March a military police officer and a courthouse official prevented lawyer Matheus Maciel from entering two courthouses in the state of Bahia because he was wearing a religious head covering. Maciel was later permitted to enter a courthouse after he called the Bahia State Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) and reported the incident. In April the administration of Tarcila Cruz de Alencar Elementary School, located in Ceara State, removed history teacher Maria Firmino from the classroom for teaching the culture and history of Afro-Brazilian religions. On January 3, President Jair Bolsonaro signed into law a bill allowing public and private school students, except those in military training, to postpone taking exams or attending classes on their day of worship when their faith prohibits such activities. On August 21, the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly approved a bill establishing administrative sanctions on individuals and organizations engaging in religious intolerance. The Senate passed a bill creating the annual National Day of Spiritism, to be celebrated on April 18, and a second bill designating Jaguaretama in Ceara State as the National Capital of Spiritism. On January 21, municipalities throughout the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. On March 26, Sao Paulo State Secretary of Justice and Citizenship Paulo Mascaretti launched an awareness campaign with the Inter-Religious Forum, an entity with civil society and religious group participation, to combat intolerance.

According to national human rights hotline data and other sources, societal respect for practitioners of minority religions continued to be weak, and violent attacks on Afro-Brazilian places of worship, known as terreiros, continued. Although less than 1 percent of the population follows Afro-Brazilian religions, 30 percent of the cases registered by the human rights hotline involved victims who were practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions. According to the National Secretariat of Human Rights of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, the national human rights hotline received 506 reports of religious intolerance in 2018, compared with 537 in 2017. From April to August, media reported members of criminal organizations attacked several terreiros in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro State, expelling religious followers and preventing Afro-Brazilian religious services. On June 13, Rio de Janeiro police officers from four different police stations, including the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police Office for Racial Crimes and Crimes of Intolerance (DECRADI), launched an operation to detain individuals who participated in the attacks and arrested eight individuals. In January, after television network Record News lost a 15-year lawsuit in which it had been accused of promoting religious intolerance towards Afro-Brazilian religions, the organization paid a 600,000 reais ($149,000) fine and produced and broadcast four 20-minute programs on Afro-Brazilian religions. Religious organizations hosted interfaith community events, including the 22nd Azoany Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom in Salvador, Bahia, on August 16, which convened approximately 2,500 practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions to advocate for the protection of Afro-Brazilian culture and religion.

In April and September, U.S. embassy officials engaged the coordinator for religious diversity at the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights to discuss the government’s efforts to promote religious tolerance and prevent violence towards Afro-Brazilian religions. In July embassy officials met with the Federal District Special Police Station for the Prevention of Crimes of Discrimination based on Race, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Age, or Disability (DECRIN), which specifically covers religious hate crimes. As a result of nomination by the embassy and consulates, Ivanir dos Santos, an Afro-Brazilian activist and religious leader, was a recipient of the Secretary of State’s International Religious Freedom Award for his exceptional commitment to advancing religious freedom. His work included founding the Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, an independent organization composed of representatives from different religious groups, members of civil society, police, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which documents cases of religious intolerance and assists victims. In April embassy and consulate officials met with representatives from the Israeli Federation of Rio de Janeiro to discuss anti-Semitism in the country. In May embassy and consulate officials met with representatives from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) at their national headquarters in Sao Paulo to discuss the importance of protecting religious freedom. In May and August officials from the Recife Consulate met with representatives of the Israeli Federation of Pernambuco to discuss issues affecting the Jewish community. Sao Paulo Consulate officials met with evangelical Christian leaders in July to discuss the role of religious leaders in promoting religious tolerance. In December the embassy hosted an interfaith dialogue on religious freedom for seven representatives from six religious and interfaith organizations to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 210.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2016 Datafolha survey, 50 percent of the population identifies 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 Christians increased from 24 percent to 31 percent. According to the 2010 census, 65 percent of the population is Catholic, 22 percent Protestant, 8 percent irreligious (including atheists, agnostics, and deists), and 2 percent Spiritist. Adherents of other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Seventh-day Adventists, as well as followers of non-Christian religions, including Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Afro-Brazilian and syncretic religious groups such as Candomble and Umbanda, make up a combined 3 percent of the population. According to the census, there are 588,797 practitioners of Candomble, Umbanda, and other Afro-Brazilian religions, and some Christians also practice Candomble and Umbanda. According to a nonrepresentative 2017 survey of 1,000 persons older than age 18 by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, 44 percent of Brazilians consider themselves followers of more than one religion.

According to the 2010 census, approximately 35,200 Muslims live in the country, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil estimates the number to be 1.2 to 1.5 million. The largest communities reside 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. The two largest concentrations are 65,000 in Sao Paulo State and 29,000 in Rio de Janeiro State.

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, including employment discrimination, refusal of access to public areas, and displaying, distributing, or broadcasting religiously intolerant material. Courts may fine or imprison for one to three years anyone who engages in religious hate speech. If the hate speech occurs via publication or social communication, including social media, courts may fine or imprison perpetrators for two to five years. 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.

According to a March STF ruling, animal sacrifice in religious rituals is constitutional.

Government regulations require public schools to offer religious instruction, but neither the constitution nor legislation defines the parameters. By law, the instruction must be nondenominational and conducted without proselytizing, and alternative instruction for students who do not want to participate must be available. Schools are required to teach Afro-Brazilian religion, history, and culture. A law, signed by President Bolsonaro on January 3, allows public and private school students, except those in military training, to postpone taking exams or attending classes on their day of worship when their faith prohibits such activities. The new law guarantees the right of students to express their religious beliefs and mandates that schools provide alternatives, including taking replacement exams or makeup classes.

The law prohibits public subsidies to schools operated by religious organizations.

A constitutional provision provides the right of access to religious services and counsel to 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.

A Sao Paulo State law establishes administrative sanctions for individuals and organizations engaging in religious intolerance. Punishment ranges from a warning letter to fines of up to 9,000 reais ($2,200).

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

Government Practices

On March 13, media reported a military police officer and a courthouse official tried to prevent lawyer Maciel, who wore an Afro-Brazilian religious head covering known as ekete, from entering two courthouses in Salvador, Bahia. The Bahia Court of Justice prohibits the wearing of head coverings inside courthouses. Maciel was later permitted to enter the building after he reported the incident to the OAB, a nationwide independent organization that regulates legal professions. According to media reports, Maciel criticized what he characterized as attempts to restrict his freedom; Maciel contacted members of the Religious Intolerance Commission of the OAB, which convened a meeting with all involved parties to discuss how to avoid similar incidents.

Although public and private schools are required to teach Afro-Brazilian religion, history, and culture, media reported in April that Tarcila Cruz de Alencar Elementary School administration removed history teacher Maria Firmino from the classroom for teaching the culture and history of Afro-Brazilian religions. The school, located in Juazeiro do Norte, Ceara State, informed Firmino’s lawyer that it intended to remove her from the classroom indefinitely and assign her to an administrative position. Firmino, a follower of Candomble, filed a complaint against the school at the Juazeiro do Norte Regional Police Station for not respecting her religious freedom. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office for Citizen’s Rights asked the Juazeiro do Norte Department of Education for more information on the removal. The State Prosecutor’s Office of Ceara State filed a motion to initiate an administrative proceeding on May 9, requesting additional information about the case from the education secretary and the school’s administrative director. Ceara Civil Police continued to investigate the case through year’s end.

In March the STF ruled animal sacrifice in religious rituals was constitutional. The Rio Grande do Sul State Public Prosecutor’s Office brought the case before the court, challenging a state court ruling permitting practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions to perform animal sacrifices. The STF ruling stated that ritualistic animal sacrifice in Afro-Brazilian religions is not unconstitutional as long as it is “without excess or cruelty.” Justice Luis Barroso noted that special protection for traditional Afro-Brazilian religions was necessary due to the country’s history of discrimination.

Afro-Brazilian religious leaders from Rio’s northern suburbs who were victims of religious intolerance said police were indifferent to attacks on their places of worship, as evidenced by a lack of investigations and arrests.

In a special session on August 29, the Senate honored Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes Cavalcanti, who is widely recognized as “the father of Spiritism in Brazil.” Bezerra de Menezes, who died in 1900, was known as a pacifist and humanist who defended the right of individuals to follow Spiritism at a time when the doctrine was not widely accepted. The Senate passed a bill creating the National Day of Spiritism to be celebrated annually on April 18, the day Allan Kardec published the Book of Spirits in 1857 in France, the sacred text of Spiritist doctrine. The Senate passed a second bill designating Jaguaretama, Ceara State, the hometown of Menezes, as the National Capital of Spiritism. Ceara Senator Eduardo Girao, a Spiritist himself, led these initiatives.

On January 21, municipalities around the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. The State Attorney’s Office in Salvador, Bahia, organized an Affirmative Week of Religious Freedom that included an interfaith walk, workshops to discuss victims’ assistance channels and strategies, and a seminar on the importance of the judiciary system and the role of religious leaders in the promotion of religious freedom.

On March 26, Sao Paulo State Secretary of Justice and Citizenship Mascaretti launched an awareness campaign against religious intolerance within the state. The Inter-Religious Forum, an entity with civil society participation, coordinated the campaign through meetings, seminars, and promotion of the national human rights hotline. The forum has 101 members and unites representatives of 22 religious groups, including Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Afro-Brazilian, atheists, and agnostics.

In September the government released its third report on the ICCPR, presenting the main legislative, judicial, and administrative measures implemented by the government between 2004 and 2018, to protect the rights specified in the ICCPR. Highlights included the creation of the Religious Diversity Policy Advisory Board in 2011 under the then-National Secretariat of Human Rights and the creation of the participatory National Committee on Religious Diversity in 2013. Both entities are responsible for planning policies to defend and promote religious freedom, confronting discrimination and religious intolerance, and promoting secularism. The report also highlighted the adoption of a 2012 recommendation that requires the inclusion of a field on religious intolerance in criminal investigation records.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although less than 1 percent of the population follows Afro-Brazilian religions, 30 percent of the cases registered by the human rights hotline involved victims who were practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions. Four percent of instances recorded by the human rights hotline involved violence. Media reported multiple incidents where individuals and groups destroyed terreiros and sacred objects within.

Some religious leaders stated that attacks on Afro-Brazilian religious groups had increased throughout the country in recent years, attributing the increase in violence to criminal groups and a climate of intolerance promoted by evangelical groups.

According to media, on July 11, evangelical Christians, reportedly involved in drug trafficking, attacked a Candomble temple in the Parque Paulista neighborhood of Duque de Caxias, in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro State. The individuals broke into the temple, in operation for more than 50 years, and forced the priestess to destroy all the symbols representing the orishas (divine beings). They also threatened to set fire to the temple if the practitioners did not stop holding regular religious services.

On April 11, media reported members of criminal organizations attacked a terreiro in Flora Park, Nova Iguacu, in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro State and expelled its members. The property is located outside the Buraco do Boi favela (informal housing development), which according to multiple media sources is controlled by criminal organizations. According to media, criminals expanded their territory into the favela and banned Afro-Brazilian religious services. Someone sprayed graffiti stating, “Jesus owns this place” on a public wall in one neighborhood.

According to media reports, on June 13, Rio de Janeiro State police officers from four different police stations, including the DECRADI, launched an operation to prevent further attacks against terreiros in Nova Iguacu in Rio de Janeiro State. According to media reports, the MPF requested information from 120 religious groups operating in prisons with Rio de Janeiro State Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration permission. According to human rights sources, many of the perpetrators were former or current drug traffickers who converted to evangelical Christianity in prison, where they became radicalized to attack religious minorities and upon release, participated in the violent acts. In August police officers identified the organizers, a group of drug traffickers calling themselves Bonde de Jesus, and arrested eight persons accused of participating in the attacks, including the alleged leader of the group, Alvaro Malaquias Santa Rosa.

In other attacks on terreiros, it was unclear if the perpetrators were affiliated with a particular religious group. On January 12, media reported six armed men entered a terreiro in Camacari, Salvador, during a public event. The men assaulted and injured the religious leader, Babalorixa Rychelmy Esutobi, and the unidentified photographer for the event. The men robbed members of the terreiro as well as their guests, leaving with sacred objects, cellphones, and a car. At year’s end, local police continued to investigate the attack.

On May 6, Campinas council member Carlos Roberto de Oliveira reported to the Public Ministry an attack on the Terreiro de Umbanda Vo Benedita. According to a statement released by the terreiro, the attackers vandalized three cars in the parking lot, and members heard the attackers shout, “The Umbanda terreiros will be stoned.” An attacker threw rocks and other heavy objects at the building and punctured the car tires of the terreiro’s members. Another attacker threatened the terreiro’s leader, Joao Galerane, at gunpoint. At year’s end, police continued their investigation.

In May media reported an attack on a Candomble terreiro near the Federal University in Maceio, Alagoas State. According to religious leader Veronildes Rodrigues da Silva, someone attempted to break into the terreiro on a Sunday night but failed. The attackers returned again at approximately 4 a.m. the next morning. No one was injured; however, the area outside the gate was damaged. Da Silva submitted a complaint to the local Civil Police. According to local sources, the Alagoas State Brazilian Bar Association Social Equality Commission chair asked authorities to investigate the attack and pledged to protect the religious leader. The investigation continued through the end of the year.

In May media reported a group of approximately 50 evangelical Christians organized a religious service in front of a Candomble terreiro in Alagoinhas in the state of Bahia. According to the terreiro’s leader, the evangelical Christians became aggressive, shouting, “Satan shall die” and “let’s invoke Jesus’ name to shut down Satan’s house.” They also threw copies of the Bible at the gate of the terreiro.

According to the Falun Dafa Association of Brazil, in March a Falun Gong exposition in Brasilia was closed early due to pressure from the Chinese embassy, which some Falun Gong adherents said they believed was an attempt to conceal the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of the Falun Gong. According to the association, they displayed the same exhibit at the University of Brasilia in October without Chinese embassy interference.

Between April and June the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducted a survey to update understanding of attitudes and opinions toward Jews in 18 countries around the world. In November the ADL released the results of the survey for each country, detailing the scope of anti-Semitic views among the country’s residents. The survey cited 11 stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they agreed with them. The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was as follows: 70 percent agreed that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Brazil; 38 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; 63 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust; 27 percent that Jews do not care what happens to anyone but their own kind; 25 percent that Jews think they are better than other people; and 39 percent that other people hate Jews because of the way they behave. According to the survey, 25 percent of the population harbored anti-Semitic attitudes – up from 16 percent in the previous survey in 2015 – which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that a majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”

From January to August, the Israeli Federation of Sao Paulo recorded 194 incidents of anti-Semitism in the country in its 2019 Anti-Semitism Report. From January to November 2018, the federation recorded 46 incidents. The report was based on empirical data with incidents coming from a range of sources, including traditional media, social media, and reports from other branch offices of the organization. The survey reported sightings of swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti.

There were reports of private entities and individuals inciting violence or harassment toward religious minorities on social media and in the press. Between January and August, the Israeli Federation of Sao Paulo recorded 50 incidents of anti-Semitic comments shared on social media. Between January and October of 2018, they recorded five complaints of anti-Semitic comments shared on social media.

In February Arlindinho, the son of a famous Brazilian samba singer, reported suffering persistent attacks on social media due to his religion, Candomble. He reported receiving negative and offensive comments after posting pictures involving his religion on social media. Arlindinho said he was considering filing a lawsuit against the offenders and started a campaign on social media to combat religious discrimination online.

Media reported Idalma Lima, a follower of an Afro-Brazilian religion, received threats on social media for sharing information about a ritual involving animal sacrifice on her Facebook page. Lima, a lawyer living in Santarem in western Para State, said one commenter suggested she sacrifice her minor children instead of the animals. She filed an official complaint with the local police on April 1; police investigated the case as a crime of religious intolerance. The investigation continued through year’s end.

In January Record News lost a 15-year lawsuit in which the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, National Institute of Afro-Brazilian Tradition and Culture (TECAB), and Center for Studies on Labor Relations and Inequality (CEERT) accused the organization of using its programming to promote religious intolerance towards Afro-Brazilian religions. As part of the settlement, the network’s parent organization, Grupo Record, owned by Bishop Edir Macedo, the founder of the evangelical Christian Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, agreed to broadcast four 20-minute programs on Afro-Brazilian religions designed and produced by TECAB and CEERT. In July Grupo Record began broadcasting the series, titled The Voice of Afro Religions. In addition to providing space in their broadcasting schedule and paying the production costs, Grupo Record had to pay 300,000 reais ($74,600) in indemnities to both TECAB and CEERT, amounting to 600,000 reais ($149,000) in total compensation.

The Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights’ National Secretariat of Human Rights received 506 reports of religious intolerance via the nationwide Dial 100 human rights hotline in 2018, compared with 537 in 2017. Most of the reports involved discrimination (48 percent), followed by psychological violence, including threats, humiliation, and hostility (31 percent), and institutional violence marked by discrimination in the workplace and other public settings (8 percent). Almost half of the 506 cases of religious intolerance recorded by the nationwide Dial 100 human rights hotline in 2018 were reported in the states of Sao Paulo (91), Rio de Janeiro (61), Bahia (24), Pernambuco (24), and Minas Gerais (23). There were 354 cases from January to June 2019 recorded by the Dial 100 hotline, including Sao Paulo (48), Rio de Janeiro (35), Minas Gerais (14), Goias (9), and Bahia (9). Statistics for the remainder of the year were not available.

According to a December 2018 Datafolha survey, released in January, 26 percent of those surveyed stated they had suffered some form of religious discrimination, with religion as the third-most-cited cause of discrimination, behind social class and place of residence, but higher than discrimination by gender, race or color, and sexual orientation.

On August 18, the Agora Sao Paulo newspaper published the results of an information request showing the civil police received 562 reports of religious intolerance between January and April, in comparison with 280 during the same period of 2018. Almost half the cases, 246, resulted in injury, for which the penalty is from one to six months in prison or a fine. The civil police data did not include the actual penalties imposed, but Agora Sao Paulo noted that in practice perpetrators are rarely imprisoned for this crime.

According to the Bahia State Secretariat of Racial Equality, there were 35 instances of religious intolerance in the state from January to August. The State Secretariat for Human Rights in Rio de Janeiro reported 123 instances of religious intolerance from January to June. Afro-Brazilian religious groups experienced the greatest number of occurrences, with 18 percent involving practitioners of Candomble, 57 percent other Afro-Brazilian religions, and 1 percent Umbanda. The municipalities in the metropolitan area of the state registered 55 percent of the incidents, followed by 32 percent from the Baixada Fluminense on the outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, and 12 percent from the northern part of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

There were several reports of various interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace and United Religions Initiative, working across multiple faiths to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On July 14, hundreds of members of religious groups participated in a peaceful walk to combat religious intolerance in Nova Iguacu, Baixada Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro State, where evangelical Christian drug traffickers attacked terreiros numerous times. On August 16, the NGO Alzira Community Comfort Association held the 22nd Azoany Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom in Salvador, Bahia. Approximately 2,500 followers of Afro-Brazilian religions gathered to advocate for the protection of Afro-Brazilian culture and religion.

On September 15, the NGO Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance organized the 12th Annual Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The event drew hundreds of participants from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds, including from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, spiritualism, atheism, Candomble, and Umbanda, and emphasized messages of mutual respect and love.

In Cabo de Santo Agostinho, Pernambuco State, members of Terreiro Ile Ase Sango Ayra Ibona organized a procession to honor the religious deity Oxum and ask for religious tolerance. Media reported the group walked to the banks of the Pirapama River in July to offer flowers, fruit, and jewelry. The walk helped raise awareness of Afro-Brazilian religions, promote a culture of tolerance, and encourage respect.

According to media, several religious freedom committees of state chapters of the OAB participated in events supporting religious freedom. On May 31, OAB Contagem supported and attended the Sixth Parade Against Racism and Religious Intolerance in Minas Gerais State. OAB Paraiba held the First Roundtable on Religious Intolerance and Racism on May 31. On July 24, OAB Rio de Janeiro established a hotline to receive reports of religious intolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In April and September embassy officials engaged the coordinator for religious diversity at the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. Representatives from the Directorate for Human Rights Promotion and Education discussed the status of the National Committee for Respect of Religious Diversity and the government’s efforts to promote religious tolerance. Embassy officials promoted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State and the importance of protecting religious freedom.

In July embassy officials met with DECRIN representatives and discussed a DECRIN report documenting cases of religious intolerance in the Federal District.

The embassy and consulates nominated Ivanir dos Santos, a Rio de Janeiro-based Afro-Brazilian activist, academic, and religious leader for the Secretary of State’s 2019 International Religious Freedom Award honoring civil society actors who had demonstrated exceptional commitment to advancing freedom of religion or belief. In July dos Santos was selected as one of five awardees honored at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington. According to Ivanir, the award strengthened his work by raising media awareness and bolstering his credibility among civil society as a regional leader on issues of religious intolerance. Following a series of meetings since receiving his award, the consulate and Ivanir held an interfaith dialogue at a Candomble temple in northern Rio de Janeiro City in September with the participation of Lutheran, Umbanda, and Candomble representatives. Together with the Consul General and other consulate officials, Ivanir and a diverse group of religious leaders described the urgency of combating threats to religious freedom in the country and the importance of U.S. support in raising awareness. Leading several hundred participants in the 12th Annual Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Ivanir attracted unprecedented media attention and government attention.

In April embassy and consulate officials met with representatives from the Israeli Federation of Rio de Janeiro, a nonprofit association representing the Jewish community, to discuss anti-Semitism in the country.

In May embassy and consulate officials met with representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ at their national headquarters in Sao Paulo.

In May and August Recife Consulate officials met with representatives of the Israeli Federation of Pernambuco and discussed issues affecting the Jewish community. Leaders of the federation shared incidents of religious intolerance and discussed the history of the Jewish community in Recife.

Sao Paulo Consulate officials met with evangelical Christian leaders in July to discuss the role of religious leaders in promoting religious tolerance.

On September 26, officials from the Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro met with Ivanir dos Santos and other Afro-Brazilian religious leaders during a visit to a Candomble temple in Rio’s northern suburbs, a temple subjected to incidents of religious intolerance. Dos Santos requested the consulate continue supporting Afro-Brazilian religious institutions and monitoring issues impacting religious freedom in the country.

In October an embassy official met with a representative from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They discussed the Church’s interests in promoting respect for religious freedom and opportunities for interfaith dialogue.

In December the embassy hosted an interfaith dialogue on religious freedom for seven representatives from six religious and interfaith organizations to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Participants represented a cross section of faiths, including evangelical Christian, Protestant, African-descendent, and indigenous. The discussion centered on key challenges impacting religious freedom, primarily the fear some participants said they felt of an intolerant evangelism linked to criminal organizations.

Chile

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The law prohibits religious discrimination and provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination. Religion and state are officially separate. The National Office of Religious Affairs (ONAR), an executive government agency, is charged with facilitating communication between faith communities and the government and ensuring the protection of the rights of religious minorities. ONAR continued to work with local authorities in the communities affected by attacks on churches in several regions of the country, including the Araucania and Santiago Regions, to coordinate and rebuild the damaged churches. During the year, ONAR held roundtable discussions with religious leaders in all regions of the country regarding possible changes to the law regarding religious organizations.

Jewish community leaders again expressed concern about a rise in anti-Semitism in the country, including anti-Semitic vandalism and chants by groups occurring during widespread protests in October. Jewish community representatives said they were particularly concerned about the violent episodes allegedly committed by members of the Patriotic and Social Movement of Chile (MSP), whose leaders produced statements criticizing Jews. By year’s end, there were more than 60 reports of attacks, including vandalism, looting, and arson, on Catholic and evangelical churches, and one on a synagogue, associated directly with the social unrest occurring across the country since October. ONAR representatives stated the intensification of attacks on religious buildings directly restricted freedom of religion, in particular for communities most directly affected by social unrest.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy representatives periodically met with government officials to discuss reports of anti-Semitism, religious minorities’ security concerns, and institutional cooperation among government and religious organizations. They also met with civil society and religious leaders to discuss religious diversity and tolerance and to raise incidents of concern, including perceived threats to the Jewish community.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to ONAR’s 2018 estimates, approximately 60 percent of the population self-identifies as Roman Catholic and an estimated 18 percent identifies as “evangelical,” a term used in the country to refer to non-Catholic Christian groups, including Episcopalians, but not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Churches (including the Armenian, Greek, Persian, Serbian, and Ukrainian communities), and Seventh-day Adventists. In the most recent census that included religious affiliation, conducted in 2002, Baha’is, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Church of Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Churches, and other unspecified religious groups together constituted less than 5 percent of the population. An estimated 4 percent of the population identifies as atheist or agnostic, while 17 percent of the population identifies as nonreligious. According to ONAR, 9 percent of the population self-identifies as indigenous, of which approximately 30 percent identify as Catholic, 38 percent as evangelical, and 6 percent as other; the remaining 26 percent did not identify with any religion. ONAR states that many of those individuals also incorporate traditional indigenous faith practices into their worship.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the free exercise of worship. It states that these practices must not be “opposed to morals, to good customs, or to the public order.” Religious groups may establish and maintain places of worship, as long as the locations comply with public hygiene and security regulations established by laws and municipal orders.

According to the constitution, religion and state are officially separate. The law prohibits discrimination based on religion, provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination based on their religion or belief, and increases criminal penalties for acts of discriminatory violence. The law prohibits discrimination in the provision of social services, education, ability to practice religious beliefs or gain employment, property rights, and the rights to build places of worship.

By law, registration for possible conscription to the military is mandatory for all men between the ages of 17 and 45. Eligible candidates are first allowed to volunteer for service; a draft is then conducted for the number of positions remaining up to the force requirements identified by the Ministry of Defense. Alternative service, by working for the armed forces in a job related to the selectee’s expertise, is possible only for those studying certain fields. The law makes no provision for conscientious objection. Only ministers or priests from registered religious organizations are exempted on religious grounds.

The law does not require religious groups to register with the government; however, there are tax benefits for those that do. Once registered, a religious group is recognized as a religious nonprofit organization; religious organizations have the option of adopting a charter and bylaws suited to a religious entity rather than a private corporation or a secular nonprofit. Under the law, religious nonprofit organizations may create affiliates, such as charitable foundations, schools, or additional houses of worship, which retain the tax benefits of the religious parent organization. According to ONAR, public law recognizes more than 3,200 religious organizations as legal entities, mostly small evangelical or Pentecostal churches. By law, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may not refuse to accept the registration petition of a religious entity, although it may object to petitions within 90 days if legal prerequisites for registration are not satisfied.

Applicants for religious nonprofit status must present the MOJ with an authorized copy of their charter, corresponding bylaws with signatures, and the national identification numbers of charter signatories. The bylaws must include the organization’s mission, creed, and structure. The charter must specify the signatories, the name of the organization, and its physical address, and it must include confirmation that the religious institutions’ charter signatories approved the bylaws. In the event the MOJ raises objections to the group, the group may petition; the petitioning group has 60 days to address the MOJ’s objections or challenge them in court. Once a religious entity is registered, the state may not dissolve it by decree. If concerns are raised about a religious group’s activities after registration, the semiautonomous Council for the Defense of the State may initiate a judicial review of the matter. The government has never deregistered a legally registered group. One registration per religious group is sufficient to extend nonprofit status to affiliates, such as additional places of worship or schools, clubs, and sports organizations, without registering them as separate entities. According to ONAR, the MOJ receives approximately 30 petitions monthly. The MOJ has not objected to any petition and has registered every group that completed the required paperwork.

By law, all public schools must offer religious education for two teaching hours per week through pre-elementary, elementary, middle, and high school. Local school administrators decide how religious education classes are structured. The majority of religious instruction in public schools is Catholic. The Ministry of Education also has approved instruction curricula designed by 14 other religious groups, including orthodox and reformed Jews, evangelical Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists. Schools must provide religious instruction for students according to students’ religious affiliations. Parents may have their children excused from religious education. Parents also have the right to homeschool their children for religious reasons or enroll them in private, religiously oriented schools.

The law grants religious groups the right to appoint chaplains to offer religious services in public hospitals and prisons. Prisoners may request religious accommodations. Regulations for the armed forces and law enforcement agencies allow officially registered religious groups to appoint chaplains to serve in each branch of the armed forces, the national uniformed police, and the national investigative police.

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

Government Practices

ONAR worked with local authorities in communities affected by attacks on churches to rebuild the damaged churches and guarantee continuity in the services they provide.

A wide-ranging investigation into sexual abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church, launched in 2018, continued. In July prosecutors announced they were investigating Bishop Santiago Silva, president of the Episcopal Conference of Chile, for obstructing the investigation. Also in July, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the country announced an internal investigation of abuse by the late Jesuit priest Renato Poblete found that allegations by all 22 purported victims were “plausible and credible.” The Jesuits apologized to the victims for failing to act earlier. To protect the identities of victims and witnesses, the Jesuits initially provided law enforcement with only an anonymized executive summary of the report. In October prosecutors obtained a court order forcing the Jesuits to turn over the full report.

In March an appeals court ruled in favor of three victims of Fernando Karadima, a Catholic priest who allegedly abused children for decades, in their civil case against the Archdiocese of Santiago for allegedly covering up the abuse. Karadima never faced criminal charges for his actions due to the statute of limitations; however, he was found guilty in a Church canonical trial in 2010 and removed from the priesthood.

Some religious leaders and groups continued to protest a gender identity law, which was passed in 2018 and came into effect in December, and allows transgender individuals 18 years and older (or 14 years and older with a parent’s or guardian’s consent) to change their name and gender in official records.

According to a December 2018 decision by the country’s comptroller general, municipalities do not have the legal authority to conduct foreign relations, and all public tenders must be guaranteed “equal and nondiscriminatory treatment” under the law. This decision derived from a December 2018 suit filed by the Jewish Community of Chile to block a municipal law in Valdivia that would have associated the city to the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)” movement. Jewish community leaders praised the decision on social media and in news reports.

During the year, ONAR held roundtable discussions with religious leaders in every region of the country to solicit their opinions on possible changes to law or policy regarding religious organizations and religious freedom. The roundtables replaced the previous government’s Interfaith Advisory Council, disbanded in 2018. Members of the disbanded Advisory Council formed a nongovernmental organization to continue their work, offering training and certification on religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. According to ONAR representatives, the constitutional rewrite, to take place in 2020-21 in response to large-scale protests calling for a new constitution, would likely lead to contentious debates on religious freedom and other human rights.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to ONAR and media reports, during widespread protests and civil unrest that began in October and continued through year’s end, more than 60 Catholic and evangelical churches were vandalized, looted, or burned. In November protesters looted La Asuncion and Veracruz Catholic Churches in Santiago. According to reports, the protesters removed statues, other religious icons, and pews to burn them on the street. Protesters also attacked the San Francisco de Borja Catholic Church, which is dedicated to the Carabineros (national uniformed police), and burned down a historic wooden church in Ancud in the southern part of the country.

Unlike in the four previous years, only one of the church attacks was attributed to individuals from the Mapuche indigenous group. The Mapuche, the country’s largest indigenous group, considered most of Araucania as ancestral territory and continued to call for the government to return lands confiscated prior to the return to democracy in the late 1980s. Some factions of the Mapuche continued to burn churches, lumber trucks, and farms to demand the return of land. The number of violent incidents in Mapuche areas increased during the year; however, attacks on churches decreased significantly. Some analysts said they believed the high profile killing of a Mapuche activist by police in November 2018 caused violence to increase, focusing it more on direct symbols of the state, rather than churches.

Jewish community leaders again expressed concern about a rise in anti-Semitism in the country. During the protests and civil unrest in October and November, the main Jewish cemetery in Santiago and Jewish-owned business in Concepcion were vandalized with anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli graffiti, and protesters attacked the main synagogue in Concepcion with Molotov cocktails. Jewish community leaders also reported hearing anti-Semitic chants as protesters marched past Jewish community buildings.

The Jewish community also expressed concern regarding the increasing number of violent episodes allegedly committed by members of the MSP, whose leaders produced statements criticizing Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. In August the Santiago metropolitan government denied the MSP permission to hold an anti-immigrant march, which many observers criticized for inciting racial hatred. Some alleged MSP members made calls on social media for supporters to march armed. Jewish community leaders praised the government’s decision to deny the permit, saying authorities could not have effectively guaranteed public safety.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives periodically met with government officials to raise the status of religious minorities in the country, expressions of anti-Semitism, religious minorities’ security concerns, and institutional cooperation among government and religious organizations. They also met with civil society and religious leaders to discuss religious diversity and tolerance and to raise incidents of concern, including perceived threats to the Jewish community.

In May the embassy hosted an interreligious iftar for leaders from several of the country’s faith communities, including Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, Church of Jesus Christ, Baha’i, and indigenous representatives, as well as government officials and foreign diplomats. The embassy highlighted the iftar, International Religious Freedom Day, and the United Nations’ International Day for Tolerance with social media posts encouraging interfaith understanding and religious tolerance.

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. The MOI continued efforts to develop protective tools for religious groups. Religious leaders expressed continued concern about a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. MOI officials and High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos met in August to study the role of religious organizations in the peace and reconciliation process. Religious leaders reported arbitrary enforcement of the tax law, and in particular, confusion regarding the taxability of donations to religious organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the United Nations Development Program signed an agreement to pursue a study of the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations, within the framework of the implementation of the country’s public policy of religious freedom and worship, launched in March 2018. By year’s end, 14 major cities had adopted new public policies on religious freedom, up from four at the close of 2018.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that illegal armed groups threatened and committed violence against leaders and members of religious organizations in many areas of the country. Because many religious leaders were also involved in politics and social activism, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. For example, there were media reports covering the killings of Pastors Tomas Francisco Estrada and Leider Molina, allegedly for their opposition to illegal armed groups. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia (ECC) reported that in March a pastor fled his community in Armenia, Antioquia, after receiving threats of violence.

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 continued to use 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. Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement.

U.S. embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom, including conscientious objection to military service and the effect of illegal armed actors on religious practice, with government officials. Embassy officials met with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the Attorney General’s Office, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. Embassy officials discussed with the MOI the 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 48.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The Roman Catholic Church estimates 75 percent of the population is Catholic. According to a 2017 survey by the 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 5,500 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 70 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. Subsequent 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, but the legal framework is not in place to extend them 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 the organization’s 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 marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and 13 non-Catholic Christian denominations that are signatories to a 1997 public law agreement. The agreement authorizes 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 affiliated with signatories must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage. Religious groups not signatories to the 1997 public law may not provide chaplaincy services or conduct state-recognized marriages.

The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the education of their child, 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 ($2,500 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 may complete alternative, government-selected public service. The law requires that regional interagency commissions (Interdisciplinary Commissions on Conscientious Objection, 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. The law requires that every battalion or military unit designate an officer in charge of processing conscientious objector exemptions.

According to the law, 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 are tax-exempt, but they must report their incomes and expenses to the National Tax and Customs Authority. According to an August Constitutional Court ruling, the state may not seize the assets of non-Catholic churches in legal proceedings if the church meets the requirements for formal government recognition. Previously this benefit was available only to the Catholic Church and 14 other Christian churches.

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 impose religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.

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

Government Practices

The MOI reported there were 7,763 formally recognized religious entities in the country as of September, compared with 7,292 at the end of 2018. It received 771 applications for formal recognition of religious entities, compared with 966 in 2018; approved 481, compared with 632 in 2018; and filed or denied 32, compared with 21 in 2018, because of 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, 99 percent of the applications were from evangelical Christian churches, with Islamic and Buddhist organizations representing the remaining 1 percent. The MOI continued to give 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 there was no waiting period to reapply.

The government denied petitions submitted in 2017 from the Traditional Episcopal Church and the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International, which are not signatories to the 1997 public law agreement, requesting they receive the same rights as the Catholic Church under the agreement. The government determined the regulations on religious groups’ authority to engage in activities, such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance, did not apply to all recognized religions equally because not all registered religious groups were signatories of the 1997 public law agreement. The MOI reported that the new public policy on religious freedom and worship 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.

The MFA and the United Nations Development Program signed an agreement on July 24, to pursue a study of the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations, within the framework of the implementation of the country’s public policy of religious freedom and worship, launched in March 2018.

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 22 departmental workshops, prioritized according to need, to assist local authorities and religious organizations on various aspects of the public policy, with a focus on taxes, religious facilities, and education. The workshops also focused on raising awareness of the role of religious groups in supporting victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations, as well as strengthening 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. By year’s end, 14 major cities (including Bogota, Manizales, Santa Marta, Villavicencio, Quibdo, Chia, Fusagasuga, Ibague, and Tulua) and 11 departments (among them Valle del Cauca, Caldas, Casanare, Magdalena, Meta, Quindio, Risaralda, Santander, Tolima, and Vaupes) had adopted these new public policies on religious freedom – compared with four major cities and four departments in 2018. The policies included public campaigns to promote religious tolerance and nondiscrimination and efforts to strengthen communication between religious groups and government institutions at the national and regional levels. In pursuit of Bogota’s 2018 public policy on religious freedom, the city’s outreach programs prioritized 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.

According to religious groups, individuals continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from military service on religious grounds. Religious organizations reported mixed enforcement of the conscientious objector law, stating that some objectors were still required to serve in the military, although relieved of carrying a weapon. The Ministry of Defense reported that by year’s end, it had approved 156 of 259 applications seeking conscientious objector status on religious grounds.

Religious leaders from Catholic and Protestant churches reported the parameters of the tax law were not clear and enforcement was arbitrary. There was particular confusion regarding the taxability of donations to religious organizations. The ECC continued to express concern that the taxes on religious nonprofit organizations were limiting those organizations’ ability to deliver social services in their communities. For example, the NGO Pastoral Social said paying taxes would limit its ability to provide social services to vulnerable communities.

The CJCC continued to express concern that some political figures associated with the country’s self-defined left-leaning political parties used anti-Semitic rhetoric during political campaigns, including references to the “Jewish lobby,” “Jewish control of money,” and “Jews control the media.” Political analysts noted such rhetoric was not representative of party views.

The National Police, through the Protection and Special Services Directorate, continued to provide security for religious sites and leaders deemed at risk and/or under threat, including a meeting of Catholic bishops, a conference of Muslim community leaders, and a Christian television station.

In accordance with a declaration signed by then president Juan Manuel Santos in 2016, the country again observed July 4 as the National Day of Religious Freedom. In connection with the observance, the MOI and regional governments held forums and other events to educate the public on the significance of the holiday and new public policy and to build bridges with religious organizations. For example, President Ivan Duque hosted an event attended by 130 religious leaders to commemorate the day. The ministers of education and interior also attended and signed a declaration supporting an interinstitutional board to analyze the relationship between the right to education and the freedom of religion and worship.

An interagency working group on the role of religious organizations in the peace and reconciliation process formed in 2018 met in August to continue discussing ways to further strengthen participation of religious groups in peace and reconciliation projects at the national and regional levels.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Jewish community reported continued comments promoting anti-Semitism on some social media sites, including aggressive actions by BDS Colombia, an anti-Israel protest movement that used anti-Semitic slogans, such as “Jews control the media.” In November unidentified individuals defaced a public stone menorah in Bogota with a spray-painted swastika, an act the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned as an expression of “intolerance and hate.”

Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement. DiPaz members included the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Evangelical Church, and the Council of the Assemblies of God, as well as NGOs. Its work focused on advancing the peace process in the country. 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.

A representative of Abu Bakir Mosque reported the mosque had been vandalized three times in recent years, with the most recent attack occurring in June.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed conscientious objection to military service, the tax law, 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 government district secretary at Bogota City Hall on August 22.

Embassy officials met with representatives from the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, 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 postpeace-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.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that do not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior” and provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. In May a legislator presented a bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state. According to media reports, the bill engendered significant public debate between a growing constituency calling for official secularism in the constitution and members of the Catholic community opposing the change. The bill was pending in the National Assembly at year’s end. Some civil society leaders continued to state that the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding organizational registration processes. The Constitutional Chamber received 10 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at government institutions and discrimination by government entities. The chamber dismissed eight of the claims, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination. In the other two cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants: a student who wanted to reschedule her exams to observe the Jewish Sabbath and a non-Catholic teacher who did not want to participate in a Catholic Mass.

Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by high-level investigations into priests charged with sexual abuse. There were also reports of anti-Semitism on social media, with Juan Diego Castro, a former presidential candidate and former minister of security, making anti-Semitic comments about an owner of a major media outlet. An interreligious forum created in 2017, with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities. The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including a visit from Sagi Shalev, an interfaith dialogue activist from Israel, and the signing of a declaration to promote fraternity among Latin American and Caribbean cultural and religious traditions.

U.S. embassy representatives engaged with public officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. They also engaged religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom. The embassy conducted outreach with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); and other religious groups. The embassy drew on the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Department of State to share messages of tolerance and understanding with religious leaders and government officials. The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at five million (midyear 2019 estimate). A 2018 survey by the Center for Research and Political Studies of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) estimates 52 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 71.8 percent in the UCR 2016 survey); 22 percent Protestant, including evangelical Christians (12.3 percent in 2016); 9 percent other religious groups (2.9 percent in 2016); and 17 percent without religious affiliation (12.3 percent in 2016).

The majority of Protestants are Pentecostal, with smaller numbers of Lutherans and Baptists. There are an estimated 32,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, predominantly on the Caribbean coast. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its membership at 50,000. The Jewish Zionist Center estimates there are between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews in the country. Approximately 1,000 Quakers live near the cloud forest reserve of Monteverde, Puntarenas. Smaller groups include followers of Islam, Taoism, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Baha’i Faith. Some members of indigenous groups practice animism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and requires the state to contribute to its maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not undermine “universal morality or proper behavior.” Unlike other religious groups, the Catholic Church is not registered as an association and receives special legal recognition. Its assets and holdings are governed consistent with Catholic canon law.

The constitution recognizes the right to practice the religion of one’s choice. By law, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may file suit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and may also file a motion before the Constitutional Chamber to have a statute or regulation declared unconstitutional. Additionally, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may appeal to the Administrative Court to sue the government for alleged discriminatory acts. Legal protections cover discrimination by private persons and entities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion is responsible for managing the government’s relationship with the Catholic Church and other religious groups. According to the law, a group with a minimum of 10 persons may incorporate as an association with judicial status by registering with the public registry of the Ministry of Justice. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, religious groups must register if they choose to engage in any type of fundraising. Registration also entitles them to obtain legal representation and standing to own property.

The constitution forbids Catholic clergy from serving in the capacity of president, vice president, cabinet member, or Supreme Court justice. This prohibition does not apply to non-Catholic clergy.

An executive order provides the legal framework for religious organizations to establish places of worship. Religious organizations must submit applications to the local municipality to establish a place of worship and to comply with safety and noise regulations established by law.

According to the law, public schools must provide ecumenical religious instruction by a person who is able to promote moral values and tolerance and be respectful of human rights. If a parent on behalf of a child chooses to opt out of religious courses, the parent must make a written request. The Ministry of Public Education provides assistance for religious education to private schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, including directly hiring teachers and providing teacher salaries and other funds.

The law allows the government to provide land free of charge to the Catholic Church only. Government-to-church land transfers are typically granted through periodic legislation.

Only Catholic priests and public notaries may perform state-recognized marriages. Wedding ceremonies performed by other religious groups must be legalized through a civil union.

Immigration law requires foreign religious workers to belong to a religious group accredited for migration control purposes by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, and it stipulates religious workers may receive permission to stay at least 90 days but not more than two years. The permission is renewable. To obtain accreditation, a religious group must present documentation about its organization, including its complete name, number of followers, bank information, number of houses of worship, and names of and information on the group’s board of directors. Immigration regulations require religious workers to apply for temporary residence before arrival.

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

Government Practices

In May a legislator presented a bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state. According to media reports, the bill engendered significant public debate between a growing constituency calling for official secularism in the constitution and members of the Catholic community opposing the change. The bill was pending in the National Assembly at year’s end.

Some non-Catholic leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding organizational registration processes. Members of Protestant groups registered as secular associations continued to state they preferred a separate registration that would specifically cover church construction and operation, permits to organize events, and pastoral access to hospitals and jails for members of non-Catholic religious groups. In the case of the Catholic Church, the government continued to address such concerns through the special legal recognition afforded the Church under canon law.

The Constitutional Chamber received 10 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at educational institutions, Catholic institutions, or public places. The court dismissed eight claims due to insufficient evidence proving discrimination or because it found no basis for claiming discrimination. One of the claims dismissed regarded a police raid on the headquarters of the Catholic Church in search of evidence for an alleged sexual abuse case involving a priest. The court dismissed the complaint after finding the evidence did not support the claim. In the other two claims sustained, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants. In one case, the chamber ordered the Ministry of Education to reschedule exams for a Jewish minor for her observation of the Sabbath. In the other case, the chamber ruled that a non-Catholic teacher should be excused from attending a Mass to celebrate the end of the school year.

The government again included financial support for the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups in its annual budget. It earmarked approximately 72.7 million colones ($128,000), compared with 20.2 million colones ($35,000) in 2018, for various projects requested by the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups during the year, including funds to make improvements at churches and parish buildings in different parts of the country. This funding for religious groups was included in a supplemental budget for the year. A semiautonomous government institution again sold lottery tickets and used the proceeds to support social programs sponsored by both Catholic and non-Catholic religious groups.

In April the Ministry of Education issued a directive stating that school directors should make decisions on whether to place religious images in educational institutions based on “mutual respect for the rights and liberties of all, as well as the values and principles under which the education system functions.” The director of religious education for the Ministry of Education stated he objected to the directive because the criteria were too subjective and broad and would have a chilling effect on school directors displaying any religious material.

The place of religion in the electoral process continued to be a subject of much public discussion. Representatives from political parties that defined themselves as evangelical Christian filled 14 of the country’s 57 legislative seats, and evangelical parties prepared to contest municipal elections in 2020. The president of the Evangelical Alliance instructed pastors to refrain from electoral politics, while Catholic leaders defended the right of the Catholic Church to engage in the political process.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Evangelical Alliance, continued to state their opposition to same-sex partnerships, citing moral grounds. A Constitutional Court ruling published in November 2018 held that the National Assembly must pass legislation affirmatively recognizing same-sex partnerships before May 2020 or else all prohibitions against the practice would become null and void. In response, a group of legislators – including members of the major evangelical party Nueva Republica – presented a bill in September to regulate civil unions but prohibit marriage for same-sex partnerships. The bill was still in draft form at year’s end.

Abortion also continued to be a frequent topic of public debate involving religious groups. In the National Assembly, members of the ruling Citizens’ Action Party sought to legalize abortion in limited cases, including when the mother’s life is in danger. Opposition legislators presented a bill penalizing abortion as homicide. The president of the Evangelical Alliance and the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops supported these opposition-led efforts and criticized any legislation that would permit abortion.

In response to growing concern around sexual abuse cases involving priests and pastors, a legislator proposed a bill to amend the law to require clergy and other religious leaders who have contact with minors to report to the Public Ministry allegations of sexual abuse of minors. The bill stipulates fines for priests who do not report child sex abuses cases heard in confession. According to media reports, Catholic leaders opposed the bill, stating it would violate canon law and Catholic religious practices. Those favoring the bill said Catholic priests should be obligated to help protect minors in “vulnerable situations,” as in the case of teachers and social workers, who must report child abuse.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to UCR polling, the demographic shift to fewer adherents of the Catholic Church continued. Approximately half of those who left the Catholic Church joined evangelical Christian groups, while the other half gave up religious affiliation altogether.

A UCR poll conducted in April showed a decrease in affiliation with the Catholic Church by almost 1 percent from the last poll in November 2018. Political observers and religious leaders said the shift stemmed from continuing public debate about the place of religion in politics. Catholic leaders noted that during the year they received a significant increase in requests from members seeking to formally disaffiliate with the Catholic Church, including removal from baptism ledgers, because of their disagreements with the Church on social policy. Political observers also noted favorable public perception of the Church declined; they said it was likely because of several high-profile accusations of pedophilia and sexual abuse against Catholic priests and evangelical Christian pastors. In one case reported in media outlets, Catholic Priest Mauricio Viquez was accused of sexually abusing minors, which led to government authorities raiding the Catholic archbishop’s office to seek evidence. Viquez fled to Mexico to try and avoid prosecution and was apprehended by Mexican authorities and faced extradition to Costa Rica. In October the government approved Viquez’s extradition, but later in the month, Viquez appealed; the case was still pending at year’s end in Mexico. In another case, an evangelical Christian pastor, Mario Chacon Leandro, was sentenced in October to 14 years in prison after being found guilty of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor. According to media reports, evangelical pastor Carlos Manuel Chavarria Fonseca was arrested in August on five accounts of sexually abusing women.

Debates on same-sex partnerships and abortion on social media networks were occasionally accompanied by insults and remarks disparaging the beliefs of Catholics, other Christians, and nonbelievers. For example, an article posted on Facebook reporting on the Catholic Church’s position on abortion received several comments with slurs directed at Catholic clergy, calling them pedophiles and hypocrites for their stance on social issues. Both issues continued to prompt public debate, both in social and traditional media outlets.

In a public video posted on social media, Juan Diego Castro, a former presidential candidate and former minister of security, used anti-Semitic language in questioning the commercial strategy of a news outlet owned by a Jewish individual, alluding to the Holocaust and calling him an “evil banker.” Government officials, religious leaders, and civil society members all condemned his remarks. In addition to this incident, the Jewish community reported isolated instances of anti-Semitic comments on social media, particularly posts in three Facebook groups making statements that Jews controlled the Costa Rican economy and attacking Israel’s right to exist.

The Interreligious Forum of Costa Rica, an interfaith dialogue among religious leaders, continued, with participation of representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, Protestant, Lutheran, Jewish, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths. The group hosted the visit of Sagi Shalev, an interfaith dialogue activist from Israel, to participate in a public event on religious liberty. In March members of the interfaith dialogue signed a declaration to promote fraternity among Latin American and Caribbean cultural traditions. One of the interfaith dialogue leaders, a former participant in a U.S. government-sponsored program, started a project to create a Museum of Empathy with an emphasis on interfaith dialogue, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and directors from the country’s museums. The objective of the project, which was established in 2017 as an initiative of the Ombudsman’s Office, was to promote interreligious dialogue among the country’s religious groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed issues of religious freedom throughout the year with public officials, including legislators and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an outcome of the embassy’s initiative to promote conversations among religious leaders, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a meeting with all religious leaders registered in the country to discuss issues of interest for the religious organizations and the current legal framework regulating them.

Embassy representatives also engaged with civil society leaders and with a wide range of religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ, and other religious communities to discuss their views on religious freedom in the country, including the free expression of religious beliefs. Religious leaders were invited to participate in major embassy events and receptions. The Embassy drew on the Department of State Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to share messages of tolerance and understanding with religious leaders and government officials.

The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions and highlight tolerance and respect for religious diversity. Examples included messages sent to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the evangelical Christian celebration of Month of the Bible, and the Catholic commemoration of the Day of the Virgin of Los Angeles. The embassy also used social media to amplify messages from the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

Cuba

Executive Summary

The country’s constitution, in effect since February 25, contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds. According to human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and religious leaders, however, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. According to CSW, following the passage of the constitution, which was criticized by some religious groups, the government increased pressure on religious leaders, including through violence, detentions, and threats; restricting the right of prisoners to practice religion freely; and limiting or blocking international and domestic travel. Media and religious leaders said the government escalated its harassment and detention of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez, Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro, his wife and fellow activist Ariadna Lopez Roque, and Patmos Institute regional coordinator Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso. According to CSW, in July and November, authorities detained, without charges, Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre, a member of the Apostolic Movement and journalist. Many religious groups said their inability to obtain legal registration impeded the ability of adherents to practice their religion. The ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). According to CSW, many religious leaders practiced self-censorship because of government surveillance and infiltration of religious groups. In April media reported authorities arrested and sentenced homeschooling advocates Reverend Ramon Rigal and his wife Ayda Exposito for their refusal to send their children to government-run schools for religious reasons. In July the government prevented religious leaders from traveling to the United States to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. According to CSW, on November 10, authorities prevented the president of the Eastern Baptist Convention from leaving the country. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to press for constitutional amendments, including easing registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.

The Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on September 22-23 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace. Approximately 800 participants from different religious groups in the country attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of peaceful interfaith coexistence.

U.S. embassy officials met briefly with Caridad Diego, the head of ORA, during a Mass in September celebrating Pope Francis’s elevation of Havana Archbishop Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez to the rank of cardinal; Diego declined to hold a follow-up meeting. Embassy officials also met regularly with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs. In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the President and the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion. Embassy officials remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating meetings between visiting civil society delegations and religious groups in the country.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Catholic Church estimates 60 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent. According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.

Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists 36,000; Anglicans 22,500; Presbyterians 25,000; Episcopalians 6,000; Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and the Church of Jesus Christ 150 members. There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International. According to some Christian leaders, evangelical Protestant groups continue to grow in the country. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana. According to the local Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims, of whom an estimated 1,500 are native born. Immigrants and native-born citizens practice several different Buddhists traditions, with estimates of 6,200 followers. The largest group of Buddhists is the Japanese Soka Gakkai; its estimated membership is 1,000. Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Baha’is.

Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in the Congo River Basin and West Africa, including Yoruba groups, and often known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership. Rastafarian adherents also have a presence on the island, although the size of the community is unknown.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and “distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.” The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs. It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state.

The constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.” It states, “Conscientious objection may not be invoked with the intention of evading compliance with the law or impeding another from the exercise of their rights.” It also provides for the “right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice…”, but only “with the required respect to other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”

The government is subordinate to the Communist Party; the party’s organ, the ORA, enlists the MOJ and the security services to control religious practice in the country. The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion. The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration. The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations. The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements. Ineligibilities for registration may include determinations by the MOJ that another group has identical or similar objectives, or the group’s activities “could harm the common good.” Even if the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship. Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.

The penal code states membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime; penalties range from fines to three months’ imprisonment, and leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison.

The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship). Two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of one another and detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – must be provided to authorities. The law states if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled. If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the house church may be closed permanently and members may be subject to imprisonment. Foreigners must obtain permission before attending services in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions. Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.

The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.

Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service.

Religious education is highly regulated, and homeschooling is illegal.

The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it. The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”

Government Practices

Many religious groups said notwithstanding constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict certain religious groups, and leaders’ and followers’ activities, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely, and applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Religious leaders said before and following implementation of the new constitution on February 25, the government increased its pressure on religious leaders, while curtailing freedom of religion and conscience.

According to CSW, reports of authorities’ harassment of religious leaders increased in parallel with churches’ outspokenness regarding the constitution. CSW reported that, before the passage of the constitutional referendum in February, officials told religious leaders they would be charged as “mercenaries and counterrevolutionaries” if they did not vote for the new constitution. According to CSW, on February 12, CCP officials summoned Christian, Yoruba, and Masonic leaders in Santiago, to “confirm” they and their congregations would vote to adopt the new constitution. According to online media outlet CiberCuba, on February 22, security agents from the Technical Department of Investigation (Departamento Tecnico de Investigaciones, or DTI) arrested Roberto Veliz Torres, a minister of the Assembly of God in Palma Soriano, allegedly for pressuring his congregants to vote “no” in the constitutional referendum. Several other pastors, mostly Protestants, were arrested, threatened by state security officials, and attacked in official media for the same motive, such as Pastor Carlos Sebastian Hernandez Armas of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana’s Cotorro neighborhood. In a February 23 article in a state newspaper, Herndandez Armas was attacked by name as a “counterrevolutionary” for refusing to support the new constitution. According to media outlet 14yMedio.com, an official from the ORA named Sonia Garcia Garcia telephoned Dariel Llanes, head of the Western Baptist Convention, of which Hernandez Armas’ church is a member, to inform him that the pastor would “no longer be treated like a pastor, but instead like a counterrevolutionary.” One church leader stated government officials sought to intimidate religious leaders because the officials thought some religious leaders were openly promoting a “no” vote on the constitution. Some religious groups stated concerns the new constitution significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief, as well as diluting references to freedom of conscience and separating it from freedom of religion.

According to the U.S-based Patmos Institute, police summoned and interrogated Yoruba priest Loreto Hernandez Garcia, vice president of the Free Yorubas of Cuba, which was founded in 2012 by Yorubas who disagreed with the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, which they allege is controlled by the ORA. According to the U.S. based Global Liberty Alliance, authorities accused the Free Yorubas of “destabilizing society,” and subjecting their leaders to arbitrary detentions and beatings, destruction of ceremonial objects, police monitoring, and searches-and-seizures without probable cause.

According to media, prison authorities continued to abuse Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro for his refusal to participate in ideological re-education programs while incarcerated. Diaz Paseiro, imprisoned since November 2017 and recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, was beaten, prohibited from receiving visits or phone calls, denied medical and religious care, and confined to a “punishment” cell. Diaz Paseiro was serving a three year and five-month sentence for “pre-criminal dangerousness” for protesting municipal elections in 2017.

Media reported that police continued their repeated physical assaults against members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, on their way to Mass. Reports indicated the group’s members typically attempted to attend Mass and then gathered to protest the government’s human rights abuses. Throughout the year, Soler Fernandez reported repeated arrests and short detentions for Ladies in White members when they attempted to meet on Sundays. According to media, because of the government’s intensified pressure on the movement, the women were placed under brief house arrest on Sundays in order to prevent them from attending Mass. Soler Fernandez said she was arrested every Sunday she tried to exit her house to protest. She and other Ladies in White members were frequently physically abused while in police custody, as shown by videos of their arrests. After being taken into custody, they were typically fined and released shortly thereafter.

According to media, authorities specifically harassed and threatened journalists reporting specifically on abuses of religious freedom. On April 22, police arrested and assaulted journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones while he was reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Officers approached and arrested Quinones while he was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors facing charges because they wanted to homeschool their children because of hostility and bullying their children were subject to in state schools due to their faith. When Quinones asked why he was being arrested, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, a court sentenced him to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience”; he was imprisoned on September 11 after authorities denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter stating he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, prison authorities reportedly punished Quinones and threatened him with disciplinary action. Patmos reported that on August 9, Yoel Suarez Fernandez was detained and threatened for reporting on the Rigal and Quinones cases, and authorities confiscated his phone.

According to media, in April authorities arrested homeschooling advocates Reverend Ramon Rigal and his wife Ayda Exposito. The couple said they objected to the atheistic ideological instruction integral to the Communist Party curriculum of state schools and the abuse their children were subjected to for their parents’ beliefs, including the bullying of their daughter at school because she was Christian. The couple withdrew their children from the state school and enrolled them in an online program based in Guatemala. The reports stated the family, who belong to the Church of God in Cuba, were given 30 minutes’ notice before their trial began on April 18. At trial, the prosecutor stated education at home was “not permitted in Cuba because it has a capitalist foundation” and only government teachers are prepared to “instill socialist values.” In addition to a fine for truancy, Rigal was sentenced to two years in prison and Exposito 18 months for refusing to send their children to the government school, as well as for “illicit association” for leading an unregistered church. In December, Diario de Cuba reported state judicial officials denied Ayda parole. Another couple in their church was also sentenced to prison for refusing to send their children to state schools.

According to CSW, on July 12, state security agents detained Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre after he left the Havana headquarters of the Ladies in White where he had been documenting human rights abuses. A member of the Apostolic Movement and a journalist, Fernandez was released on July 19 and reportedly never charged. According to CSW, on November 13, authorities summoned Fernandez and his wife Yusleysi Gil Mauricio to the Camaguey police station. After separating the couple, security agents reportedly told her that Fernandez “would be judged for being a counterrevolutionary.” Fernandez was released November 19 after four days of detention, again without charge. Fernandez said he believed the detentions were because of his reporting on authorities’ religious freedom abuses.

Patmos reported that on October 31, authorities detained, interrogated, and threatened Velmis Adriana Marino Gonzalez for two hours for leading a female Apostolic movement. Another member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba, Alain Toledano Valiente, reported to CSW that police had summoned him three times during the year. He said authorities opposed the construction of a new church (authorities demolished the previous Emanuel Church and detained hundreds of church members in 2016), even though he had the permits to build the new church. Following one summons, Toledano stated, “In Cuba pastors are more at risk than criminals and bandits… I cannot carry out any religious activity; that is to say they want me to stop being a pastor.”

Patmos reported during the year authorities repeatedly pressured and threatened 17-year-old Yoruba follower Dairon Hernandez Perez for his refusal to enlist in the military due to his religious beliefs.

According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion. Several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994. On October 23, Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas met with the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City and told church leaders the denomination was “welcome” in Cuba; however, the ORA did not approve the Church’s registration by year’s end.

Representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought registration said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups. In some cases, the MOJ delayed requests for registration or cited changing laws to justify a lack of approval. EchoCuba, a U.S.-based international religious freedom advocacy group, reported that some Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing them to operate without legal status. According to Patmos, in June seven registered groups formed the Alliance of Evangelical Churches (AIEC), but the ORA denied their registration.

Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference. According to EchoCuba, however, several religious leaders, particularly those from smaller, independent house churches or Santeria communities, said the government was less tolerant of groups that relied on informal locations, including private residences and other private meeting spaces, to practice their beliefs. They said the government monitored them, and, at times, prevented them from holding religious meetings in their spaces. CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on house churches.

According to EchoCuba, the ORA approved some registration applications, but it took up to two to three years from the date of the application to complete the process. Soka Gakkai was the only Buddhist group registered with the government.

According to religious leaders and former prisoners, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study. Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles and other religious literature, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason.

According to media, in August the ORA informed Catholic leaders that it had cancelled the annual Catholic public youth day celebrations, except in the city of Santiago. The announcement came after police prevented some Catholic priests, journalists, and others from attending the funeral of Cardinal Jaime Ortega at the Havana cathedral on July 28.

According to CSW, the government, through the Ministry of Interior, systematically planted informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants. The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees. As a result, CSW assessed, many leaders practiced self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching. Catholic and Protestant Church leaders, both in and outside of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), reported frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials for the purpose of intimidating them and reminding them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups. In October state security officials reportedly summoned and interrogated a Protestant leader and a Catholic leader, warning both to leave their churches for their “counterrevolutionary” activities and threatening them with imprisonment if they did not comply. Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued with their activities. In March an officer informed Yoel Ruiz Solis in Pinar del Rio that he was operating an illegal church in his home and threatened to confiscate his house and open criminal proceedings against him. In August and October officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning accused Rudisvel Ribeira Robert of various violations; during the second visit they threatened him with a fine if he continued to allow religious activities on his property.

Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued with their activities. In March an officer informed Yoel Ruiz Solis in Pinar del Rio that he was operating an illegal church in his home and threatened to confiscate his house and open criminal proceedings against him. In August and October officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning accused Rudisvel Ribeira Robert of various violations; during the second visit they threatened him with a fine if he continued to allow religious activities on his property.

According to Patmos, the Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups. The Patmos report said reggae music, the primary form of Rastafarian expression, was marginalized and its bands censored. According to Sandor Perez Pita, known in the Rastafarian world as Rassandino, reggae was not allowed on most state radio stations and concert venues, and Rastafarians were consistently targeted in government crackdowns on drugs, incarcerating them for their supposed association with drugs without presenting evidence of actual drug possession or trafficking. Authorities also subjected Rastafarians to discrimination for their clothing and hairstyles, including through segregation of Rastafarian schoolchildren and employment discrimination against Rastafarian adults.

According CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said there was a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature, primarily in rural areas. Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic obstructions and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether. Patmos reported one pastor witnessed authorities at the airport confiscate 300 Bibles U.S. tourists attempted to bring in with them. According to Patmos, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014. Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.

The Catholic Church and several Protestant representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.

By year’s end, the government again did not grant the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCB) public requests to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcasting on television and radio. The ORA continued to permit the CCB to host a monthly 20-minute radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country. No other churches had access to mass media, which remained entirely state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.

According to media, the government continued to prohibit the construction of new church buildings. All requests, including for minor building repairs, needed to be approved by the ORA, which awarded permits according to the inviting association’s perceived level of support for or cooperation with the government. For example, despite spending thousands of dollars in fees and finally receiving ORA approval in 2017, in April the ORA rescinded permission for renovations to the Baptist Church in Holguin after church leaders participated in a campaign to abstain from nationwide voting on the new constitution. Berean Baptist Church, whose request for registration was pending since 1997, could not repair existing church buildings because as an unregistered group it could not request the necessary permits.

According to CSW, “The use of government bureaucracies and endless requirements for permits that can be arbitrarily cancelled at any time is typical of the way the Cuban government seeks to control and restrict freedom of religion or belief on the island. The leaderships of the Maranatha Baptist Church and the Eastern Baptist Convention have done everything right and have complied with every government requirement. In return, the Office of Religious Affairs has once again acted in bad faith and subjected them to a Kafkaesque ordeal, where they find themselves right where they started over two years ago.” Reportedly, the ORA’s processes meant many communities had no legal place to meet for church services, particularly in rural areas. Other denominations, especially Protestants, reported similar problems with the government prohibiting them from expanding their places of worship by threatening to dismantle or expropriate churches because they were holding “illegal” services.

According to CSW, several cases of authorities’ arbitrary confiscation of church property remained unresolved – including land owned by the Western Baptist Convention the government confiscated illegally in 2012 and later transferred to two government companies. Many believed the act was in retaliation for the refusal of the Western Baptist Convention to agree to various ORA demands to restructure its internal governance and expel a number of pastors. One denomination reported the Ministry of Housing would not produce the deeds to its buildings, required to proceed with the process of reclaiming property. The ministry stated the deeds had been lost. The Methodist Church of Cuba said it continued to struggle to reclaim properties confiscated by the government, including a theater adjacent to the Methodist church in Marianao, Havana. The Methodist Church reportedly submitted all necessary ownership documentation; government officials told them the Church’s case was valid but took no action during the year. According to CSW, In March officials threatened to confiscate a church belonging to a registered denomination in Artemisa. On April 17, during the week before Easter, officials notified the Nazarene Church of Manzanillo that they intended to expropriate the church building used by the congregation for 20 years. The government took no further action regarding the Manzanillo church through the end of the year.

According to media, religious discrimination against students was a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and Communist Party officials encouraging and participating in bullying. In November Olaine Tejada told media authorities were pressuring him to retract his earlier allegations that his 12-year-old son, Leosdan Martinez, had been threatened with expulsion from a secondary school in Nuevitas Camaguey in 2018 because they were Jewish. On December 3, media reported schoolmates took off his kippah and beat him in the face with a pistol. According to CSW, on December 11, education authorities forbade sons from entering the school if they wore the kippah. The Nuevitas municipal director of education imposed the kippah ban after a government commission found a school guard guilty of failing to protect the older of the two boys, who had been beaten by fellow students on a regular basis for several months. Rather than sanctioning the guard, they instituted a kippah ban. Authorities threatened to open legal proceedings against the parents for refusing to send the children to school.

According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement.

CSW reported a new development in the government’s use of social media to harass and defame religious leaders. In some cases, posts were made on the Facebook accounts of public figures targeting religious leaders or groups. In most instances, the accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security. In the run-up to the constitutional referendum, Pastor Sandy Cancino, who had been publicly critical of the draft constitution, was criticized on social media and accused of being a “religious fundamentalist paid by the imperialists.”

According to CSW, on October 18, a Catholic lay leader running a civil society organization with a Christian ethos was stopped on his way to Havana, where he planned to visit a priest for religious reasons. His taxi was stopped in what first appeared to be a routine police check, but a state security agent came to the checkpoint, interrogated him for an hour and a half, and threatened him with prison if he continued to work for this organization.

According to Patmos, immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of incoming and outgoing travel. Patmos reported that in May Muslim activists from the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam traveled to Pakistan to attend a training session. Throughout their stay in Pakistan, Cuban security officials sent threatening messages through their relatives in Cuba, warning them they would be arrested if they returned. Reportedly, the activists returned home despite the threats.

The government continued to block some religious leaders and activists from traveling, including preventing several religious leaders from traveling to the United States to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State in July and other religious gatherings outside of Cuba. The Patmos Institute’s annual report listed 24 individuals who were banned from traveling due to their religious affiliation. CSW reported that a pastor from the Western Baptist Convention was prohibited from traveling to the United States in September to attend a spiritual retreat. According to CSW, on November 10, the president of the Eastern Baptist Convention, one of the largest Protestant denominations on the island and one of the founding members of the Cuban Evangelical Alliance, was stopped from boarding a flight and informed that he was banned from leaving the country.

According to 21Wilberforce, a U.S.-based Christian human rights organization, in November the government prevented several church leaders affiliated with the AIEC from leaving the island to attend the AIEC’s general assembly in Indonesia. One pastor said that in addition to harassment, intimidation and interrogations, authorities prevented the AIEC from receiving visits from overseas pastors and church leaders by denying them the necessary visitor visas.

According to Patmos, the government denied a considerable number of religious visas, including to a group of missionaries from Florida that had visited annually to rebuild temples. On September 13, immigration officials interrupted an Apostolic conference in Mayabeque Province and threatened foreign visitors with deportation for participating in an “illegal conference.” Also, according to Patmos, pastors on tourist visas reported constant and obvious monitoring by security officials and occasional interrogations and threats.

According to EchoCuba, the government continued to give preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others. EchoCuba reported the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not. Similarly, the government continued to reward cooperative religious leaders and threatened revocation of rights for noncooperative leaders. According to EchoCuba, in exchange for their cooperation, CCC members continued to receive benefits other nonmember churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad. EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government. Of the 252 violations of freedom of religion or belief reported to CSW during the year, only 5 percent involved members of CCC religious groups.

Reportedly because of internal restrictions on movement, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish. These restrictions made it difficult or impossible for pastors relocating to a different ministry to obtain government services, including housing. Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups. According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities. Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from traveling within the country to attend special events or meetings. Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from traveling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.

Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas, citing a measure prohibiting churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations and requiring individual accounts to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. Reportedly, it continued to be easier for larger, more organized churches to receive large donations, while smaller, less formal churches continued to face difficulties with banking procedures.

Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs. International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to all individuals regardless of religious belief.

Some religious groups again reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before- and after-school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. They attributed the increase in access to the government’s declining resources to provide social services. Religious leaders, however, also reported increased difficulties in providing pastoral services.

Media reported that during the year, the government-run historian office in Havana helped restore the Jewish cemetery, the oldest in the country, as part of its celebration of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the city.

On January 26, the first new Catholic church since the revolution, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was opened in Sandino, near the town of Pinar del Rio. This church was the first of three Catholic churches for which the government issued building permits.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” again held an 800-person interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on September 22-23 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials had a brief encounter with Caridad Diego, the head of ORA, during a Mass in September celebrating the Vatican’s appointment of Cardinal Garcia Rodriguez; Diego declined to hold a requested follow-up meeting. In public statements and through social media postings, U.S. government officials, including the President and Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion and expression.

Embassy officials met with the head of the CCC and discussed concerns unregistered churches faced to gain official status.

Embassy officials continued to meet with a range of registered and unregistered religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, to discuss the principal issues of religious freedom and tolerance affecting each group, including freedom of assembly, church expansion, access to state-owned media, and their inability to open private religious schools.

Embassy engagement included facilitating exchanges among visiting religious delegations and religious groups, including among visiting representatives of U.S. religious organizations. The groups often discussed the challenges of daily life in the country, including obtaining government permission for certain activities, and difficulty for local and U.S. churches to maintain connections in the face of increasing travel restrictions imposed by the government that prevented religious leaders from leaving the country, and increased refusal rates of visas for U.S. travelers to Cuba for religious purposes.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed the country on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Dominican Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief. A concordat with the Holy See designates Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and extends to the Catholic Church special privileges not granted to other religious groups. Privileges include funding for expenses, including administration and construction, visa exceptions, and exemptions for customs duties. Some members of non-Catholic groups said they did not approve of the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provided, and treatment of non-Catholic churches as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to representatives of non-Catholic groups, a draft law to register and regulate religious entities, if passed, could reduce what they characterized as unequal treatment of religious groups in the country. While representatives of non-Catholic groups continued to state the special privileges given to the Catholic Church through the concordat were unfair, these administrative privileges did not hinder their ability to practice their faiths in public and in private.

In November the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo, Brigham Young University, the Latin American Consortium of Religious Freedom, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) hosted an international conference, titled “Religious Freedom and Human Dignity.” Participants discussed the contribution of religion to society and how to promote the freedom of religion in the region through cooperation and tolerance.

In November the Ambassador met with an official from the Ministry of the Presidency to discuss the government’s stance on the privileges afforded to the Catholic Church through the concordat. Embassy officials discussed with non-Catholic leaders their efforts to pass a law to register and regulate religious entities that would address unequal access to government resources by religious groups in the country. The embassy donated funds to preserve and digitize museum archives telling the story of Jewish refugees welcomed to the country after fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe and shared these efforts on its social media pages.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.4 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2019 Latinobarometer survey, the population is 49 percent Catholic, compared with 55 percent in a 2016 Latinobarometer survey and 68 percent in 2008. The same survey indicates 26 percent of the population is evangelical Protestant, compared with 12 percent in 2008. The 2017 Latinobarometer survey found 21 percent have no declared religion or identify as atheist or agnostic, compared with 13 percent in 2015. Other faiths include Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, and nonevangelical Protestants. According to a November estimate by the Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity, evangelical Protestants make up approximately 30 percent of the population, with the number of Pentecostals growing the fastest.

According to representatives of the Muslim community, there are approximately 2,000 to 2,500 Muslims throughout the country. Jewish leaders estimate most of the approximately 350 members of the Jewish community live in Santo Domingo, with a small community in Sosua. There are small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is.

Most Haitian immigrants are Christians, including evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Seventh-day Adventists. According to the Dominican National Statistics Office, in 2017, the most recent survey year, there were 498,000 Haitian immigrants in the country. An unknown number practice Voodou or other Afro-Caribbean beliefs such as Santeria.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of “conscience and worship, subject to public order and respect for social norms.” A 1954 concordat with the Holy See designates Catholicism as the official state religion and extends special privileges to the Catholic Church not granted to other religious groups. These privileges include the special protection of the state in the exercise of Catholic ministry, exemption of Catholic clergy from military service, permission to provide Catholic instruction in public orphanages, public funding to underwrite some Catholic Church expenses, and exemption from customs duties.

To request exemption from customs duties, non-Catholic religious groups must first register as NGOs with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Finance. Registration with the Attorney General’s Office, which applies to nonprofit organizations generally and is not specifically for religious groups, is a two-step process. First, the organization must provide documentation of a fixed address and the names of seven elected officers, have a minimum of 25 members, and pay a nominal fee. Second, the organization must draft and submit statutes and provide copies of government-issued identification documents for the board of directors. After registering, religious groups may request customs duty exemption status from the Ministry of Finance.

The law provides for government recognition of marriages performed by religious groups registered with the Central Electoral Board. The law requires churches to have legal status and presence in the country for at least five years, provide a membership list, and train clergy on how to perform marriages. Churches are responsible for determining the legal qualification of couples, and they must record all marriages performed in the civil registry within three working days of the marriage. Failure to comply with these regulations may result in misdemeanor sanctions or fines, including 100 pesos ($2) for each day over the recording deadline, marriage license suspension, or up to five years in prison.

The concordat grants the Catholic Church free access to prisons. The government states it allows access to all faiths in prisons. Prisoners of all faiths have the right to perform religious acts in prisons, in community or alone.

The biblical studies law also mandates the Bible be read in public schools at the beginning of each day after the national anthem. This aspect of the law is currently not enforced.

Foreign missionaries may obtain a one-year multi-entry business visa through the Ministry of Foreign Relations after submitting a document offering proof of the business activity from the institution or person in the country with whom the missionary is affiliated. Foreign missionaries may renew the visa before the original one-year visa has expired.

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

Government Practices

Non-Catholic religious groups continued to state that the government provided the Catholic Church significant financial support unavailable to them, including properties transferred to the Catholic Church and subsidies to the salaries of Catholic Church officials. They expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, lack of explicit legal protection for religious groups beyond what the constitution provides, and treatment under the law of non-Catholic churches as NGOs rather than as religious organizations. In March a draft law to register and regulate religious entities was reintroduced and considered in the lower house of congress. By year’s end, it was not brought to a vote. Some non-Catholic leaders said the law would address unequal access to government resources by religious groups that they believed result from the concordat with the Catholic Church. Some political observers said that since it was a pre-election year, legislators and others were focused on other issues.

A non-Catholic religious organization continued to state the government required it to pay customs duties on imported food and other items and then apply for a refund instead of receiving an exemption as allowed by law. Several religious groups continued to report difficulties when applying for and receiving customs duty refunds from the Ministry of Finance.

Debate about reading the Bible in public schools continued. In June the lower house of congress passed a resolution calling attention to the lack of enforcement of the law requiring the reading of the Bible in public schools. In response, the Ministry of Education issued a statement saying it would not enforce the law because it violated the constitution and the rights of families to decide what faith their children practice.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In November the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo, Brigham Young University, Latin American Consortium of Religious Freedom, and the Church of Jesus Christ hosted an international conference titled “Religious Freedom and Human Dignity.”  More than 200 participants attended the two-day symposium that covered various topics, including how to promote religious freedom through cooperation and tolerance in Latin America and the Caribbean.  During the closing session, religious leaders from the region, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, signed an accord to promote and defend religious freedom in all 15 participating countries.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In November the Ambassador met with an official from the Ministry of the Presidency to discuss the government’s stance on the concordat with the Catholic Church, government financial support of churches, and legal status of other religious groups.

The Ambassador met with leaders of the Catholic Church to discuss its role in advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations in the country, including religious minorities. Embassy officials also engaged with non-Catholic leaders to learn about efforts to pass a law that would create a process to register and regulate religious entities.

Ecuador

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals the right to choose, practice, and change religions; it prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the legal system. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government; failure to do so can result in the group’s dissolution and liquidation of its physical property. In August the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and National Secretariat for Policy Management (SPM) merged to become the new Ministry of Government, with its Human Rights Secretariat assuming responsibility for religious issues. Religious and human rights leaders said this administrative transition led to confusion and there was insufficient knowledge about the registration process and relevant points of contact in the new ministry, delaying already lengthy processing times for religious groups to register. Many religious leaders said the National Assembly made no progress on the proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that the interfaith National Council on Religious Freedom and Equality (CONALIR) discussed with the National Assembly in 2018. The proposed reform would strengthen equal treatment for religious groups. Jewish and Muslim leaders said general customs regulations continued to hinder their ability to import products for use in religious festivals.

The Jewish community reported authorities made no arrests in response to a June incident in which unknown individuals painted a swastika in a Jewish school parking lot in Quito. Legislative debates on same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of abortion in the case of rape were topics of social discourse in which some religious groups participated in demonstrations or made public statements. Some religious leaders reported harassment, threats, and desecration of religious symbols by opposing activists. During violent protests in October by indigenous groups, unions, students, and others against economic reforms, the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference of Ecuador, together with the United Nations, jointly mediated the dialogue between the government and indigenous leaders to halt the violent demonstrations.

U.S. embassy officials met with officials in the Ministry of Government to discuss the registration process for religious groups and government promotion and protection of religious freedom and other related human rights. The Ambassador hosted an October 10 roundtable with religious leaders from the Baha’i, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Roman Catholic faiths to discuss challenges facing their communities. On September 26, the Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable with Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh-day Adventist leaders to discuss religious freedom topics affecting coastal communities, including registration requirements, access to prisons, and laws related to religious freedom. Embassy officials spoke with representatives from CONALIR, which includes representatives from Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventist Church faith communities, to encourage continued interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2012 survey by the National Institute of Statistics and Census, the most recent government survey available, approximately 92 percent of the population professes a religious affiliation or belief. Of those, 80.4 percent is Catholic; 11.3 percent evangelical Christian, including Pentecostals, although many evangelical Christian churches are not affiliated with a particular denomination; and 1.3 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses. Seven percent identify as members of other religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Greek Orthodox-affiliated Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America, Presbyterians, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’is, spiritualists, followers of Inti (the traditional Inca sun god), and indigenous and African faiths. There are also Seventh-day Adventists and practitioners of Santeria, primarily resident Cubans, not listed in the survey results.

Some groups, particularly those in the Amazon jungle, combine indigenous beliefs with Catholicism. Pentecostals draw much of their membership from indigenous persons in the highland provinces. There are Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country, with the highest concentrations in coastal areas. Buddhist, Church of Jesus Christ, Jewish, and Muslim populations are primarily concentrated in large urban areas, particularly Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants all individuals the right to practice and profess publicly and freely the religion of their choice and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states the government has a responsibility to “protect voluntary religious practice, as well as the expression of those who do not profess any religion and will favor an atmosphere of plurality and tolerance.” Individuals have the right to change their religion. The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the country’s legal system. The constitution grants the right of self-determination to indigenous communities, including provisions granting freedom to “develop and strengthen their identity, feeling of belonging, ancestral traditions and form of social organization.”

A 1937 concordat with the Holy See accords juridical status to the Catholic Church and grants it financial privileges and tax exemptions. Other religious groups must register as legal entities with the government under a separate 1937 religious law and a 2000 decree on religion. If a religious group wishes to provide social services, it must register under a 2017 executive decree regulating civil society. The 2017 decree dictates how civil society organizations (CSOs) must register to obtain and maintain legal status. A religious group does not need to register as a religious organization to register as a CSO and may conduct the processes separately.

By law the Ministry of Government and its Human Rights Secretariat oversee religious issues. A 2018 executive decree, signed by President Lenin Moreno, formally dissolved the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights, and Religion and temporarily transferred responsibilities related to religious issues to the SPM. On April 11, as part of the government’s consolidation of ministries, President Moreno signed an executive decree ordering the merger of the MOI and the SPM. On August 1, the MOI and SPM finalized their merger to become the Ministry of Government, with its Human Rights Secretariat responsible for oversight of religious issues, including the registration process for religious groups and CSOs.

The Human Rights Secretariat maintains national databases of legally recognized religious organizations and legally recognized CSOs, including religious groups that have registered as CSOs. Registration provides religious groups with legal and nonprofit status. An officially registered religious group, whether as a religious organization or as a CSO, is eligible to receive government funding and exemptions from certain taxes per the tax code.

To register as a religious organization, the group must present to the Human Rights Secretariat a charter signed by all of its founding members and provide information on its leadership and physical location. Registrants may deliver their documentation to the Human Rights Secretariat directly or to one of its eight regional offices countrywide. The registration process is free of charge. The Office of Religious Groups at the Human Rights Secretariat assigns an expert to analyze the submitted documentation.

To register as a CSO, religious groups require the same documentation as required for registration as a religious organization, in addition to approved statutes and a description of the mission statement and objectives of the organization. The groups register as a CSO under the government agency overseeing the issues on which the religious group wishes to work.

A religious group’s failure to maintain legal status by not adhering to the mission, goals, and objectives listed in its bylaws during registration may result in the dissolution of the group and liquidation of its physical property by the government. Dissolution may be voluntary – in which case, the religious group could decide to whom to transfer its property – or forced, under which the Human Rights Secretariat would seize the group’s property.

The Human Rights Ombudsman is a separate entity from the Human Rights Secretariat. A Human Rights Ombudsman representative has stated that the Human Rights Ombudsman would work on issues pertaining to religious groups, but its role in this regard is not clearly defined.

The labor law states that, in general, all work must be paid and does not distinguish religious workers from other types of workers. The citizen participation law recognizes volunteerism and states social organizations may establish agreements with government authorities to employ unpaid labor. The law, however, does not specifically reference religious volunteerism as a category to be utilized to establish such an agreement.

Foreign missionaries and religious volunteers must apply for a temporary residence visa and present a letter of invitation from the sponsoring organization, which may be foreign or domestic but must have legal status in the country with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The letter must include a commitment to cover the applicant’s living expenses and detail the applicant’s proposed activities. Applicants also must provide a certified copy of the bylaws of the sponsoring organization and the name of its legal representative as approved by the government.

The law prohibits public schools from providing religious instruction, but private schools may do so. Private schools must comply with Ministry of Education standards. There are no legal restrictions specifying which religious groups may establish schools.

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

Government Practices

Multiple religious leaders expressed concern with the dissolution of the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights, and Religion and the transition of responsibility for religious issues first to the SPM and then to the Human Rights Secretariat in the Ministry of Government. Religious leaders said the transition had undermined the influence of religious groups, not only by taking away a ministry dedicated to religious matters that could advocate on their behalf, but also by what they said was relegating the handling of religious issues to a mostly administrative function. Human rights and religious leaders in Guayaquil and Quito also expressed lack of knowledge about the new governmental structure after the administrative transition, such as points of contact within the new Human Rights Secretariat who handle the registration process for religious groups.

A November 25 media article reported 4,812 religious groups were registered with the government, according to statistics provided by the Human Rights Secretariat, compared with 3,638 groups registered with the MOJ in 2018. In October a Human Rights Secretariat representative said it was in the process of registering 200 additional religious groups since assuming administrative responsibilities for religious affairs in August. According to the representative, the Human Rights Secretariat inherited more than 3,000 pending requests from the SPM, which previously handled the registration process. The Human Rights Secretariat representative said registration processing time averaged between three to six months, depending on whether there were missing documents or other unfulfilled registration requirements. The official also stated the secretariat was understaffed and in the process of hiring more employees, while also renewing its registration procedures for religious groups to accommodate the administrative transition. The representative said it could be easier in some cases for a religious group to register as a CSO, rather than as a religious entity, because the religious group might lack the required certified paperwork issued by the country where the religious group is headquartered.

According to multiple religious leaders, the absence of a specific reference to religious volunteerism in the existing legal framework created uncertainty and exposed religious organizations to potential negative legal consequences. Religious leaders stated that the government expected religious organizations to define specific working hours for staff and pay them according to those hours, a challenge because many staff viewed their religious vocation as a way of life requiring them to be available at all times to meet the needs of their congregation. One Assembly of God leader said sometimes volunteers later wanted to be paid for their services and filed a complaint with the Ministry of Labor. He reported that a volunteer teacher sued a fellow Assembly of God pastor and won compensation because the court did not recognize a signed voluntary work agreement between the teacher and church as valid.

Jewish and Muslim leaders said customs regulations and onerous paperwork continued to hinder their ability to import kosher and halal foods, beverages, and plants for use in religious festivals. A Muslim leader reported having to pay customs duties on imported and donated books for which his organization had no intention of making a profit. He said the same customs regulations applied to all products and did not distinguish commercial imports from imports for religious purposes.

Religious and human rights leaders stated the May 27-August 15 state of emergency President Moreno declared for the national prison system, due to acute security and safety concerns, restricted visitors’ access to inmates, including visits by religious groups. Catholic, evangelical Christian, and human rights leaders cited specific restrictions in Guayaquil-area prisons, where security concerns were greatest. A Catholic priest said authorities at two Guayaquil prisons continued not to allow his church’s volunteer pastoral service to enter after the state of emergency ended. The Catholic priest reported an instance in which Guayaquil-area prison guards, citing security concerns, refused entry to nuns wearing habits unless they changed their clothing. The priest said that requirement was subsequently lifted, although he said that he had heard leaders of other religious groups state that prison authorities required their female adherents to wear pants. According to a human rights leader, Guayaquil-area prisons required women to wear pants to reduce the smuggling of contraband into prisons, a restriction affecting women of evangelical Christian and other religious communities who wear skirts as part of their religious belief.

According to many religious leaders, religious issues were not a top priority for the Moreno administration or the National Assembly due to other more pressing issues. The leaders said the National Assembly made no progress on the proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that CONALIR discussed with the National Assembly in 2018. CONALIR’s proposed reforms aimed to create greater equality between the Catholic Church and other religious groups, to update the registration process for religious groups, and to recognize the nonprofit status of all religious groups and accommodate their need to rely on volunteer labor for certain activities.

A case filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and accepted for review in 2014 remained pending before the Constitutional Court at year’s end. The case involved a conflict in the northern town of Iluman between Jehovah’s Witnesses who wanted to build a new assembly hall and indigenous residents who opposed it.

On January 10, the Provincial Court of Guayas ruled in favor of a Seventh-day Adventist medical student in a case brought against the University of Guayaquil in September 2018. The student stated that the university’s refusal to modify the student’s schedule to accommodate the student’s observance of the Sabbath and the university’s failure to respond to the student’s requests violated the student’s rights to freedom of religion, equality, nondiscrimination, and education. The provincial court ordered the university to reopen the courses to the student on the basis that it had violated the student’s right to lodge complaints and petitions to authorities and receive attention or adequate response – rather than her religious and education rights. The university published a public apology on its website in May affirming it was reopening coursework to the student. A human rights leader familiar with the case confirmed the university complied with the court ruling and reopened courses for the student on an accommodating schedule. In February the university filed an extraordinary protective action with the Constitutional Court in Quito arguing the order to open coursework to one student did not appropriately correspond to the basis of “not responding to the student’s request,” and that the decision as a result was detrimental to the university community because it had an impact on the curriculum and affected all other students who previously had the option to take the medical course in question on weekends. In October the Constitutional Court found the university’s extraordinary protective action admissible, and the case remained pending with the court at year’s end.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A Jewish leader said the Jewish community reported to the Attorney General’s Office an incident in June in which unknown individuals painted a swastika in a Jewish school parking lot in Quito and that the police investigation did not lead to any arrests. Jewish community members reported threats and the propagation of anti-Semitic stereotypes about the community from a social media user in May. They said the Attorney General’s Office detained the suspect in August, but after investigation, the office determined he did not pose a threat and did not file formal charges. According to Jewish community leaders, the social media harassment ceased.

A Greek Orthodox leader reported he received a telephone call from a member of an activist group in June threatening his place of worship would be burned if he marched against the country’s proposed same-sex marriage law. The leader said he did not report the threat to authorities because he preferred to avoid confrontation with the activist group the caller said he represented.

In September after the National Assembly voted against a law that would decriminalize abortion in the case of rape, a group of activists in Quito tied green kerchiefs, the symbol of the decriminalization movement, around a statue of the Virgin Mary and over its face. Photographs circulated on social media of a group of women posing in front of a Catholic church in Guayaquil while wearing green kerchiefs over their faces and pulling up their shirts to expose their breasts. A Catholic archbishop reported that the faces of National Assembly lawmakers opposing the proposed abortion law were posted online; he said doing so constituted a threat to religious freedom.

The informal interfaith group that formed in 2018 and included members of the Baha’i, Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ, evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities participated in interfaith discussions throughout the year. On October 12, as civil unrest escalated over economic reforms, including violent protests led by indigenous groups, unions, students, and others, the interfaith group sent a joint statement to the Office of the Presidency and members of the media condemning the violence, looting, and vandalism, calling for peace, and encouraging a dialogue between the government and groups affected by the proposed reforms. On October 13, the Episcopal Conference of Ecuador, together with the United Nations, jointly mediated the dialogue between the government and indigenous leaders that halted the violent protests. The Episcopal Conference of Ecuador continued to facilitate subsequent dialogue between the government and indigenous groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed with the Human Rights Secretariat of the Ministry of Government the registration process for religious groups and delays reported by some religious groups in registering or updating their information and encouraged the secretariat’s efforts to streamline the registration process and clear the backlog in pending registration applications.

On October 10, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable with religious leaders in Quito to discuss challenges facing their communities and the role of the religious community in working toward peace during the violent protests over economic reforms. Leaders from Baha’i, Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ, evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities participated. Embassy officials also spoke with representatives from CONALIR and the interfaith group established in 2018 to encourage the continuation of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 26 to learn more about religious issues in coastal communities, including registration requirements, access to prisons, and laws related to religious freedom. Leaders from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh-day Adventist communities attended the event.

The embassy and consulate used social media platforms in Quito and Guayaquil to highlight International Religious Freedom Day and other efforts to promote social inclusion of religious groups and religious diversity. The consulate used social media to highlight the Consul General’s religious roundtable discussions with representatives from different religious communities.

During the year, embassy and consulate officials met with leaders of Catholic, evangelical Christian, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America communities to discuss challenges associated with the government’s registration process and societal respect for religious diversity.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states all persons are equal before the law. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration. On October 28, the Ministry of Governance implemented a system allowing users to continue their registration process electronically. Religious leaders reported police and other government agents continued to intimidate, harass, or threaten anyone working with at-risk juveniles whom police characterized as “terrorists” with possible gang affiliation. According to sources, while many religious communities focused on education and youth development programs, particularly in the area of violence prevention, intimidation of religious individuals did not appear to be intended to limit their freedom of religion. During the 2018-19 presidential campaign and prior to being sworn into office in June, Nayib Bukele, of Palestinian background, was the target of anti-Muslim commentary, mainly on Twitter, by some of his political opposition. According to media reports and other sources, these anti-Islamic comments were an attempt to negatively influence voters and the public against Bukele. Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain suspected of killing Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, remained a fugitive. On February 25, the Attorney General’s Office filed a brief asking the trial court to clarify Saravia’s alleged participation in the Romero killing. On March 19, an intermediate appellate court affirmed the trial court’s April 2018 ruling ordering the attorney general to bring new charges against former president Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests, their gardener’s wife, and his daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador. In May the Supreme Court refused a request to commute the 30-year prison sentence of Colonel Guillermo Benavides, who was convicted for the murder of the Jesuits in 1991. On November 21, media reported Spain’s national court had extended Inocente Orlando Montano’s pretrial detention in the court case connected to the Jesuit killings.

Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian communities continued to report that members of their churches could not reach their respective congregations due to fear of gang crime and violence. According to widespread media reports, gang activity created security concerns at a national level, which affected the general population, including members of religious groups, but was not based on religious discrimination. Several religious leaders said that although gang-related restrictions prevented religious members from attending services, there was no indication the controls were intentionally designed to impede religious freedom. Reportedly, individuals in transit for nonreligious purposes received similar treatment.

During meetings with the ombudsman for human rights, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation. In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups, embassy officials continued to discuss the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories and stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a March survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 44.9 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, 31.8 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 18 percent with no religious affiliation. Approximately 5.2 percent state “other,” which includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. 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 20,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The ombudsman for human rights monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for violation of the free exercise of religion.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects. The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma. Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention. Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years. There were no prosecutions under this law during the year, compared with one in 2018, which continued under investigation at year’s end.

The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of president, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions. Members of the clergy may not belong to political parties. The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.

A 2014 law restricts support of and interaction with gangs, including by clergy members, and a 2016 law defines gangs as terrorist organizations. Rehabilitation programs and ministry activities for gang members, however, are legal.

The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government. The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements and from government financial oversight. Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship. To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) in the Ministry of Governance. The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, functions of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues. DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law. Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette. DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.

By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution. Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas. Religious groups must register in order to be eligible for this special residence visa for religious activities.

Public education, as funded by the government, is secular and there is no religious education component. The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support or funding. Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools. Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion. All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.

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

Government Practices

Clergy and faith-based NGO workers said police and other government agents continued to arbitrarily detain, question, or search them because of their ministry work with active and former gang members. According to these sources, there was no indication these government actions were motivated by restricting religious freedom, but rather, because of the close interaction of some religious groups with gangs. Some religious leaders stated they continued to avoid violence prevention programs and rehabilitation efforts, fearing prosecution or being perceived as sympathetic to gangs, even though courts had ruled that rehabilitation efforts were not illegal according to the constitution. Although they said it was not an issue of religious discrimination, clergy again said police sometimes mistakenly detained young congregants and youth leaders from several Christian denominations as suspected gang members.

According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 148 new requests for registration of religious groups from January through October 10. Of these, the ministry approved 64, and 84 were pending. According to government officials, one religious entity withdrew from the registration process. On October 28, the Ministry of Governance implemented a system that allows users to continue their registry process electronically.

Prior to the imposition of the state of emergency, “extraordinary measures,” which included restricting nongovernmental access to prisons and limiting access of clergy in certain cases, such as when a prisoner lost visitation privileges because of misconduct, continued to be in effect in eight prisons. According to law enforcement sources, these measures were intended to disrupt communication and coordination between imprisoned gang leaders and outside gang members. The legislative assembly initiated these measures in 2016 and subsequently reformed the penitentiary law to permanently include most of them in August 2018. This legislation followed increased reports that gang-affiliated evangelical Protestant pastors were gaining access to incarcerated gang leaders to serve as couriers and messengers between the jailed gang members and those outside the prisons. In some prisons, the government continued to encourage religious organizations to work with prisoners to persuade them to renounce gang life. The government also continued to consult with and jointly implement rehabilitation and reinsertion programs with faith-based organizations.

According to media reports, some individuals described as influential members of President Bukele’s political opposition, particularly the ARENA party, attempted to turn public opinion against him by spreading rumors Bukele had lied when he said he had no specific religious affiliation. Several Twitter accounts published photographs of Bukele praying in a mosque with his imam brothers and father, who are Muslim converts, to damage his credibility with voters. One tweet stated, “The problem is not religion, the problem is lying: Nayib Bukele is a Muslim.” Bukele reiterated he did not have a specific religion although his brothers and father were practicing Muslims. Bukele and numerous political commentators said they regarded the social media campaign as a smear tactic orchestrated by the opposition.

The Bukele administration terminated the prior administration’s National Security Plan, including municipal and national councils on which religious and civic leaders united to help improve security in their local communities. The Bukele administration’s new nationwide security plan, “Plan for Territorial Control,” which aimed to reclaim key municipalities from gangs and reduce the country’s homicide rate, did not include the participation of religious leaders as the previous plan had.

On January 16, the Supreme Court admitted a lawsuit filed by a citizen who questioned the constitutionality of the Vamos Party presidential candidate, Josue Alvarado, who allegedly served as a pastor while residing in the United States, which Alvarado denied. The lawsuit stated Alvarado’s candidacy violated the constitution’s prohibition on religious clergy from belonging to political parties and/or running for elected office. The Supreme Court did not prohibit his candidacy but ruled that had Alvarado been elected and his registration declared unconstitutional, he would not have been allowed to assume office and the vice-presidential candidate would have become president. In a media interview, Alvarado said the lawsuit was against his faith and religion, stating, “I am not a pastor, I am not a reverend, I am not a minister, I am not in charge of a church.”

Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain with an outstanding arrest warrant for the killing Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass, remained a fugitive. On February 25, the Attorney General’s Office formally requested the trial court undertake proceedings to clarify Saravia’s alleged role in the Romero killing to possibly identify additional suspects.

On March 19, an intermediate appellate court affirmed the April 2018 ruling that ordered the attorney general to bring new charges against former president Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, their gardener’s wife, and his daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador. The defendants appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and it remained pending at year’s end.

In May sources reported the Supreme Court refused a request to commute the 30-year prison sentence of Colonel Guillermo Benavides, convicted of murder for the killings of the Jesuits in 1991. Benavides was serving his sentence until an amnesty law was approved in 1993 but was returned to prison in 2016 after the Supreme Court declared the amnesty law unconstitutional.

Because five of the Jesuits were Spanish citizens, two human rights organizations also filed a case in a Spanish court in 2008 against former president Cristiani and 20 military members. In November media reported that Spain’s national court had extended the pretrial detention of Inocente Orlando Montano, a former Salvadoran army colonel who had been living in the United States before the U.S. government extradited him to Spain to face charges of murder and crimes against humanity.

The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights again reported it had not received notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to international news reports, by year’s end authorities had still not detained any suspects for the March 2018 detention and killing by unidentified individuals of Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez while he was on his way to Mass. The Conference of Catholic Bishops continued to call for clarity and justice regarding the case.

According to press reports, on May 18, Cecilio Perez Cruz, a Catholic priest, was found dead inside the parish house in San Jose de la Majada, in Juayan Municipality, Sonsonate Department, along with a note saying that he was killed for refusing to pay extortion money. Several weeks later, however, the Attorney General’s Office arrested a church sacristan, stating he had killed Perez Cruz, but without providing any underlying motives or details. Shortly before his death, Perez Cruz had denounced the cutting of trees near his parish. Representatives of the Archdiocese of San Salvador and other members of the Catholic Church said they suspected Perez Cruz may have been killed because of his environmental activism.

On May 23, unknown assailants killed Marvin Ruiz, a member of the Ambassadors’ Ministry of Christ, inside Filadelfia Church in Santa Ana Department. According to witnesses, the killers were dressed in police uniforms, had been actively searching for Ruiz before finding him in the church, and shot him several times immediately after encountering him. Local authorities said they had not ruled out the possibility the homicide was gang related.

Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders, leaders of other Christian denominations, and statisticians and criminology researchers continued to state that clergy sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 (also known as 18th Street) gang-controlled territory throughout the country due to fear of crime and violence. According to media reports, NGOs, and law enforcement representatives, individuals not associated with religious groups also faced the same fears and limitations while transiting gang-controlled areas. Across the country, gang members continued to control access in and around communities, and there were reports they displaced church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations. Pastors reported that congregants, as was the case with the general population, sometimes could not attend religious services if it meant they had to cross ever-shifting gang boundaries. They said both MS-13 and Barrio 18 would stop strangers, request to see their national identification cards, verify the address, and deny access to anyone they considered to be an outsider.

According to media, criminals continued to target congregants with violent muggings outside of churches. There were also continuing reports of gang members extorting organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, demanding payments in exchange for allowing them to operate in some territories. According to media reports, gangs commanded churches to divert charitable items to their families. A missionary stated that MS-13 and 18th Street gang members, whom gang leaders had previously forbidden from extorting the religious community, had recently begun demanding extortion payments from churches and religious groups. An NGO source said that this may be localized as determined by each clique. Reports of criminals targeting churches, stealing religious relics and other valuable cultural items, and violently assaulting parishioners continued. In July an unidentified individual stole a 200-year-old religious statue from the San Pedro Apostol parish in the municipality of Metapan, in Santa Ana Department. The church pastor said the 17th-century statue was taken from one of the altarpieces and was of enormous cultural and religious value. Media reports did not include motives for the robbery, and police made no arrests.

According to media reports, MS-13 gang members sometimes posed as members of an evangelical Protestant church to commit crimes without raising suspicion. According to police cited in media reports, the MS-13 clique “Tecolotes Locos Salvatruchos” (“Crazy Owls” in English) allowed several of its members to attend church in Vista al Lago, Ilopango, while still belonging to the gang structure. Reportedly, gang members also used open-air preaching events to conduct neighborhood surveillance and to prevent rival gang members from entering their territory. Media also reported these evangelical gang members were collecting extortion payments on behalf of the gang.

Media reported, and religious leaders also stated, that former gang members who joined evangelical Protestant churches gained both gang respect and endorsement. According to media, gang membership was previously understood to be a lifelong commitment; however, through religious devotion and the structure, acceptance, and support of a church, some gang leaders appeared to have respected the decision of some members to leave the gang. In these cases, gang leaders reportedly monitored the former gang members to ensure they were routinely attending church services. According to a missionary, recently the gangs began forcing these former gang members to return to the criminal structure despite their religious practice. The missionary said this was a drastic change from how gang leaders previously treated religious converts, when they were generally left alone after leaving the gang. One NGO source noted this change was likely localized and determined by each gang clique in control of specific territories.

Members of the LGBTI community said they continued to face rejection and discrimination within their own congregations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed with the ombudsman for human rights and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties to protect the rights of all individuals, including religious freedom, regardless of the officials’ personal religious affiliation or beliefs.

Embassy officials met with religious minority groups, including the Muslim and Baha’i communities, and included faith-based NGOs in embassy working groups. One group addressed gang violence, including its effects on religious communities. Embassy officials met with faith-based human rights monitors from the University of Central America’s Human Rights Institute, Cristosal (associated with the U.S. Episcopal Church), and the Passionist Social Service (Catholic). Embassy officials sought feedback on challenges to religious freedom as a secondary effect of criminal activity, government bias against ministering to gang communities, and discrimination against religious members of the LGBTI community.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status. Mayan spiritual leaders said the government continued to limit their access to some Mayan religious sites, including some located in national parks and in other protected areas where the government continued to charge entrance fees if religious visitors did not first register with the central government as official Mayan spiritual practitioners through a process they described as prolonged and cumbersome. The Mayan community of Chicoyoguito again raised concerns in July about continued lack of access to a spiritual site on former Guatemalan Military Base 21, which became a UN peacekeeping training base known as CREOMPAZ, in Coban, Alta Verapaz. Non-Catholic groups stated some municipal authorities still discriminated against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection.

Some Catholic clergy said local community members with financial interests continued to threaten and harass them, including with death threats, because of their engagement in environmental protection and human rights work. Some Mayan religious groups reported landowners continued to limit their access to Mayan religious sites on private property.

The U.S. embassy regularly engaged with government officials, civil society organizations, and religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites. Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity, including for religious minorities, in meetings with various civil society and religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by ProDatos, approximately 45 percent of the population is Catholic and 42 percent Protestant. Approximately 11 percent of the population professes no religious affiliation. Groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and adherents of the Mayan, Xinca, and Afro-Indigenous Garifuna religions.

Non-Catholic Christian groups include the Full Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Central American Church, Prince of Peace Church, independent evangelical Protestant groups, Baptists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Russian Orthodox, and Seventh-day Adventists.

Catholics and Protestants are present throughout the country, with adherents among all major ethnic groups. According to leaders of Mayan spiritual organizations, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergy, many indigenous Catholics and some indigenous Protestants practice some form of syncretism with indigenous spiritual rituals, mainly in the eastern city of Livingston and in the southern region of the country.

According to Jewish community leadership, approximately 1,000 Jews live in the country. Muslim leaders stated there are approximately 1,200 Muslims of mostly Palestinian origin, who reside primarily in Guatemala City. According to local Ahmadi Muslims, there is a small Ahmadi community of approximately 70 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the free expression of all beliefs and the right to practice a religion or belief, in public and private. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church through a concordat.

The constitution does not require religious groups to register for the purpose of worship, but non-Catholic religious groups must register for legal status to conduct activities such as renting or purchasing property and entering into contracts, and to receive tax-exempt status and tax exemptions for properties used for worship, religious education, and social assistance. To register, a group must file with the Ministry of Government a copy of its bylaws, which must reflect an intention to pursue religious objectives, and a list of its initial membership, with at least 25 members. The ministry may reject an application if the ministry believes the group does not appear to be devoted to a religious objective, appears intent on undertaking illegal activities, or engages in activities that could threaten public order. All religious groups must obtain the permission of the respective municipal authorities for construction and repair of properties and for holding public events, consistent with requirements for nonreligious endeavors.

The constitution protects the rights of indigenous groups to practice their traditions and forms of cultural expression, including religious rites. The law permits Mayan spiritual groups to conduct religious ceremonies at Mayan historical sites on government-owned property free of charge with written permission from the Ministry of Culture.

The criminal code penalizes with one-month to one-year sentences the interruption of religious celebrations, the offense of a religion, which the law leaves vague; and the desecration of burial sites or human remains; however, charges are seldom filed under these laws. The constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of religion, emphasizing, “Every person has right to practice their religion or belief in public within the limits of public order and the respect due to the beliefs of other creeds.”

According to the constitution, no member of the clergy of any religion may serve as president, vice president, government minister, or judge.

Through a penitentiary system decree, the law guarantees at least one “religious space, according to (the prison’s) capacity” in each prison. Chaplain services are limited to Catholic chaplains and nondenominational (usually evangelical) Christian chaplains. Catholic priests may enter prisons to provide chaplain services by showing a catechism book or priest identification document. Evangelical or nondenominational Protestant chaplains must provide an official identification (carnet) document identifying the pastor as a chaplain to enter a prison. Prisoners of minority religious groups do not have guaranteed access to spiritual counselors from their faith.

The constitution permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction. In general, public schools have no religious component in the curriculum. Private religious schools are allowed and are found in all areas of the country. Religious instruction is allowed, but attendance is optional, in private religious schools.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain tourist visas, which authorities issue for renewable periods of three months. After renewing their tourist visas once, foreign missionaries may apply for temporary residence for up to two years; the residential permit is renewable.

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

Government Practices

Some Mayan leaders said the government continued to limit their access to a number of religious sites on government-owned property and to require them to pay to access the sites. The government continued to state there were no limitations to access; however, anyone seeking access to the sites located on national parks or other protected areas had to pay processing or entrance fees. In Tikal, a complex of Mayan pyramids from 200 A.D. and one of the most sacred sites for Mayan spirituality, the access fee was approximately $3 to $4, which according to members of the Committee on the Designation of Sacred Sites (COLUSAG), was a prohibitive price for many indigenous populations. Mayan spiritual leaders from COLUSAG continued to state practitioners of Mayan spirituality were generally able to obtain free access to sites if they were accredited, issued an identification card as spiritual guides, and received written permission from the Ministry of Culture in advance of the scheduled ceremony/religious practice. Mayan leaders said the government continued to require written permission to access spiritual sites, involving considerable paperwork, costly travel to the capital, and fluency in Spanish. The Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism (CODISRA) continued to provide interpreters for indigenous persons upon request. Mayan, Xinka, and Garifuna advocates continued to press for access, within what they termed “reasonable parameters,” meaning temporary use for ritual worship, to sacred sites on both public and private land.

According to COLUSAG, it had officially registered 3,288 sites as “sacred places” for Mayan spirituality by year’s end, the same number as in 2018. COLUSAG representatives said government bodies they believed should work to protect sacred sites, including the Ministry of Culture and the Secretariat of Peace, demonstrated a lack of will to do so. COLUSAG said the Secretariat of Peace only provided physical meeting space for the group; the Mayan spiritual leaders worked on a voluntary basis and were not paid by the government. They said the Ministry of Culture had a “Unit for Sacred Spaces” tasked with mapping the sites and producing informative material about Mayan spirituality; however, the Ministry of Culture had staffed the unit with only one individual. The representatives said their work of preserving sacred sites was more relevant than ever and needed more robust government support, including funding. COLUSAG leaders said they did not accept claims by some businesses and government bodies that Mayan spiritual leaders were seeking to retake ownership of ancestral spiritual properties. COLUSAG said its objectives were to negotiate a time for practitioners of Mayan spirituality to practice their religion on ancestral spiritual sites.

In July the Mayan community of Chicoyoguito marked 51 years of petitioning for access to its sacred sites and the return of land, including its sacred ceremonial center. It again expressed concerns about lack of access to a spiritual site on former Guatemalan Military Base 21. In 1968, military forces seized the land and evicted members of the Mayan community and, on land sacred to the Mayan community, used the base for extrajudicial killings and torture between 1970 and 1990. The base was transformed in 2005 into a UN peacekeeping training base, today known as CREOMPAZ, in Coban, Alta Verapaz.

The government, through its “Route to Prosperity” (La Ruta Hacia la Prosperidad) program, increased its engagement with indigenous communities. In meetings held during the year, 80 indigenous leaders identified eight thematic political priorities for their communities, including respect for sacred land, indigenous culture, and indigenous religion, which they said the central government historically ignored. The Route to Prosperity platform also allowed indigenous leaders to raise concerns about future private sector investment on sacred sites in the western highlands with central government decision makers.

Non-Catholic groups said some municipal authorities continued to discriminate against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection. In October representatives of a major non-Catholic church said authorities of some municipalities levied taxes on church properties, despite being legally exempt from taxation under the constitution and in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling. According to church representatives, in some cases, municipal authorities refused to issue building permits for construction or remodeling unless the taxes were first paid. Church representatives said they believed this inconsistent application of tax law likely stemmed from financial interests rather than discrimination based on religion. They stated the government issued blanket 10-year tax exemptions to the Catholic Church and Evangelical Alliance of Churches, but only five year exemptions, which expired in 2018, to a major non-Catholic church.

Missionaries continued reporting they chose to remain on tourist visas to avoid what they considered a complicated procedure to apply for temporary residence.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection and human rights work. According to reports from the archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, at least nine priests received serious threats during the year. In Casillas, Santa Rosa Department, Father Nestor Melgar received death threats from local mine workers on social media due to his advocacy against the San Rafael mine and its environmental impact in the area. In Jalpatagua, Jutiapa Department, Father Victor Ruano received anonymous death threats from allegedly corrupt local authorities due to his community work to defend indigenous rights in Quezada, Jutiapa Department.

According to Mayan spiritual groups, some private landowners continued to deny Mayans access to locations on their property considered sacred, including caves, lagoons, mountains, and forests. For example, COLUSAG reported that Mayan spiritual practitioners could not easily access the sacred Tojil Hill in Chijuyu Town, Quiche Department. Practitioners said that up until recently, they could freely access the hill for rituals. A major landowner barred free access to the site, giving the administration of the site to a local community organization that charged an entry fee for all.

After increased interfaith cooperation in 2018 to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of the Fuego volcanic eruption, the Interreligious Humanitarian Commission ceased activities shortly afterward. There were no significant interfaith initiatives during the year.

According to Religions for Peace (RFP), whose members comprise representatives from the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant churches, the Muslim and Jewish faiths, and Mayan spirituality groups, interfaith initiatives had declined in recent years due to lack of funding. RFP continued, however, to actively seek to resolve misunderstandings about various religious groups and to promote a culture of respect, especially among youth. Some political organizations, including the Municipal Indigenous Council in Solola, rotated leadership between Catholic and Protestant representatives.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials regularly met with the human rights ombudsman, CODISRA, and members of congress to discuss religious freedom issues, including threats against Catholic clergy and issues of access for Mayans to their spiritual sites. The embassy continued to promote increased engagement between the government and indigenous communities, especially through its participation in and support for increased dialogue through the Route to Prosperity program. Embassy officials organized meetings in Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, Solola, and Retalhuleu among indigenous authorities and representatives from the Public Ministry, the judiciary, and the National Competitiveness Program to incorporate indigenous rights issues in the host government’s development and citizen security strategies. The Route to Prosperity, a bilateral initiative, is the first host-government dialogue with indigenous leaders that coordinates directly with the U.S. government.

Embassy officials met with leaders of major religious groups and representatives of faith-based nongovernmental organizations to discuss the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. Embassy officials continued outreach to religious leaders and entities, including the Catholic archbishop’s offices; Evangelical Alliance, the largest organization of Protestant churches, representing more than 30,000 individual churches; Jewish community; Muslim community; and representatives from the Commission for the Designation of Sacred Places for the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna communities, to strengthen understanding of religious freedom issues.

Guyana

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state that a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. The government continued to hold interfaith activities promoting religious tolerance and diversity. In February the Ministry of Social Cohesion hosted an interfaith awareness exercise in Bartica, a small town located in Cuyuni-Mazaruni Region. Also in February members of parliament and government ministers participated in an interfaith ceremony whose stated purpose was to celebrate the country’s religious freedom and diversity.

The Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana, whose members include representatives of the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Baha’is and Rastafarian faiths, continued to conduct interfaith efforts, and member religious groups again made oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect religious diversity.

U.S. embassy officials joined the Ministry of Social Cohesion on several occasions throughout the year at interfaith and religious events and discussed efforts to promote social cohesion and religious tolerance with government officials. Embassy officials met with representatives of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups and discussed issues related to religious tolerance. At events hosted by Muslim and Hindu communities, including Eid and Diwali celebrations, embassy officials spoke about acceptance, tolerance, and harmony in a multifaith context. The embassy amplified its activities through discussions about religious tolerance on social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 745,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2012 census, 64 percent of the population is Christian, 25 percent Hindu, 7 percent Muslim (mainly Sunni), and less than 1 percent belongs to other religious groups. Groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Rastafarians, Baha’is, Afro-descendent Faithists, and Areruya, an indigenous faith system. An estimated 3 percent of the population does not profess a religious affiliation. Among Christians, Pentecostals comprise 23 percent of the national population; Roman Catholics, 7 percent; Anglicans, 5 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 5 percent; Methodists, 1 percent; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), less than 1 percent, and other Christians, 21 percent, which includes those belonging to the Assembly of God Church, Church of Christ, and African Episcopal Methodist Zion Church, among others. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its membership at approximately 5,800.

The membership of most religious groups includes a cross section of ethnic groups, although nearly all Hindus are of South Asian descent, and most Rastafarians are of African descent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. An unenforced law prescribes a prison term of one year for a blasphemous libel conviction; however, the law exempts religious expression made in “good faith and decent language.”

There is no official system for formal registration of a religious group, but to receive government recognition, all places of worship must register through the deeds registry. The deeds registry requires an organization to submit a proposed name and address for the place of worship, as well as the names of executive group members or congregation leaders. Once formally recognized, a place of worship falls under legislation governing nonprofit organizations, allowing the organization to conduct financial operations, buy property, and receive tax benefits in its name.

Foreign religious workers require a visa from the Ministry of Citizenship. Religious groups seeking to enter an indigenous village for the purpose of proselytizing must apply for and obtain permission from the village council. Application to a village council must include the name of the group, the names of its members who will be going to the village, their purpose, and estimated date of arrival.

There are both public and private religiously affiliated schools. Private schools are operated entirely by private groups and are not funded by the state. All students attending a private religious school must participate in religious education, regardless of a student’s religious beliefs. There is no religious education in public schools, regardless of whether the school is religiously affiliated. Most public schools’ religious affiliations are Anglican or Methodist.

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

Government Practices

Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state that a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. The Guyana Rastafari Council continued to petition the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes, but according to the council, authorities again would not consider the proposal, stating that reviewing drug legislation remained a low priority for the government.

The government continued to maintain regulations limiting the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion; however, the government and religious groups with foreign missionaries continued to state the visa limitation rule was not applied. Religious groups also said the visa quotas the government allotted to them were sufficient and did not adversely affect their activities.

The Guyana Defense Force (GDF) continued to coordinate with civilian religious groups to provide military personnel with access to religious services. Leaders of the country’s three major religious groups – Christian, Hindu, and Muslim – continued to conduct prayer services and counseling on GDF bases.

The Ministry of Social Cohesion continued to promote interfaith harmony and respect for diversity. In February the ministry hosted an interfaith sensitization exercise in Bartica, a small town located in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni interior region of the country. The government reported that the exercise was held in Bartica to promote religion and social cohesion to mitigate crimes and gender-based violence in Bartica. The exercise also promoted tolerance of various ethnic and religious identities and led to the formation of a social cohesion committee for Bartica. The committee’s stated objectives were to promote social cohesion as well as address the town’s concerns about small crimes and other social issues. Government officials, including Minister of Social Cohesion George Norton, and representatives from religious groups and organizations, among them the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana (CIOG) and the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious core groups, participated in the exercise. Formed in 2017, the four core groups comprise one representative each from the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Rastafarian communities.

Government representatives continued to meet with leaders of various religious groups to promote social cohesion and discuss tolerance of diversity, including Muslim, Hindu and Christian groups. Government officials also participated regularly in the observance of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim religious holidays throughout the year.

In February members of parliament and government ministers participated in an annual interfaith ceremony whose stated purpose was to celebrate the country’s religious freedom and diversity. The ceremony included the participation of representatives of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Faithist, and Baha’i faiths, as well as followers of the Areruya indigenous faith system.

The government continued to declare some holy days of the country’s three major religious groups as national holidays, including the Eid al-Adha, Easter, and Diwali. In March the Ministry of Social Cohesion hosted a cultural program to celebrate Phagwah, the Hindu spring festival. In August the Ethnic Relations Commission, a quasi-government organization that promotes cohesion, encouraged all citizens to “embrace the message of Eid al-Adha in Guyana’s multireligious society.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana – comprising various Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups – continued to lead interfaith efforts, and there were again individual and organizational oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect for ethnic and religious diversity. In March the CIOG hosted an International Peace Conference to encourage all peoples to emulate peace and desist from violence. In April political parties, nongovernmental organizations and some members of the business community encouraged all Guyanese to embrace the message of Easter. Similar sentiments were expressed by nongovernmental organizations for Phagwah in March.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials attended government-hosted interfaith functions to support and advance religious tolerance and inclusion and raised with government officials the importance of the government’s continued promotion of religious tolerance. Embassy officials joined the Ministry of Social Cohesion on several occasions throughout the year at interfaith and religious events, including at Hindu Phagwah celebrations in March. After these events, embassy officials engaged in social media discussions on religious tolerance in the country’s pluralistic society.

In March the Ambassador delivered remarks at the CIOG-hosted International Peace Conference where she discussed religious diversity and tolerance. Embassy officials met with representatives of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups and discussed issues related to religious tolerance, including ways to foster cohesion and respect for religious differences. To encourage tolerance for religious diversity, embassy officials attended religious events hosted by various religious groups. At these events, embassy officials spoke on the values of acceptance, tolerance, and harmony in a multifaith cultural context. The embassy amplified these activities through discussions on social media about religious tolerance, conveying messages emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance. Following the Ambassador’s meeting with the Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana in June, the embassy posted on social media her comments noting the organization’s work towards fostering peace and unity.

Haiti

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. The law establishes the conditions for official recognition of religious groups. By law, any religious group wanting official recognition must receive government approval, a multiple-step process requiring documentary support. Due to budgetary constraints, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religious Denominations (MFA) did not have discretionary funding available to support religious activities during the year, such as youth conferences. The MFA continued to accord preferential treatment to the Catholic Church under terms of a concordat with the Holy See, including tax exemptions and diplomatic privileges. During the year, the National Council for Haitian Muslims, composed of Sunni and Shia groups, continued to seek official government recognition. Although the government granted the Ahmadiyya Muslims a registration number in 2018, it did not grant the group full recognition. No Muslim group achieved full recognition by the government as an established religion by year’s end. The Ministry of Education (MOE) allocated funding only for Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican registered schools. According to the National Council for Haitian Muslims, the four registered Muslim primary schools did not receive any funding. Vodou is a registered religion; however, representatives from the Haitian Vodou Federation (KNVA in Haitian Creole) said the Ministry of Justice recognized only two of 20 Vodou priests who had been approved by the MFA.

Vodou religious leaders said some practitioners continued to experience social stigmatization for their beliefs and practices. For example, according to KNVA representatives, an unknown number of individuals in the town of Mackandal attacked with machetes and killed a hougan, a Vodou priest, accusing him of the sudden and unexplained death of a neighbor. In another incident, neighbors set fire to the house of a mambo, a Vodou priestess, whom a Protestant pastor accused of causing the illness and subsequent death of an infant. As in previous years, Vodou leaders said there were general societal suspicions of their religion as a sinister force. They said Christian leaders promoted violence against Vodou followers and condemned Vodou practices. In October Landy Mathurin, the president of the National Council for Haitian Muslims, said the population generally respected Muslims, including the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab.

U.S. embassy officials met with the MFA to reinforce the importance of religious freedom and the need for equal protection and legal rights for minority religious groups. Embassy representatives met with Catholic, Protestant, Vodou, and Muslim religious leaders and Religions for Peace (RFP), a faith-based organization that promoted religious tolerance and community cooperation, to seek their views on religious freedom and tolerance and to emphasize the importance of respecting religious diversity and minority religious groups. In August an embassy representative attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new national chief Vodou priest to demonstrate support for the community. In addition, a senior embassy official attended the opening ceremony of the country’s first Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) temple in September.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U. S. government estimates the total population at 10.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government’s 2017 Survey on Mortality, Morbidity, and Use of Services, the most recent study available, Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists represent approximately 50 percent of the population, while Catholics constitute 35 percent. The same study found 12.5 percent of the population claims no religion. Other faiths, including Judaism, Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Rastafarians, Scientologists, and Baha’is, have small numbers of adherents. According to the same report, the Vodou faith represents approximately 3 percent of the population; however, most observers state that figure is underestimated because many individuals practice Vodou secretly, in addition to another faith.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions and establishes laws to regulate the registration of religious groups. The constitution protects against being compelled to belong to a religious group contrary to one’s beliefs. The MFA is responsible for monitoring and administering laws relating to religious groups. Within the MFA, the Bureau of Worship is responsible for registering religious organizations, clergy, and missionaries of various religious denominations.

By law, religious institutions must register with the MFA to receive government benefits; however, there is no penalty for operating without registration, and many religious groups continue to do so. Registration affords religious groups standing in legal disputes and provides tax-exempt status. The Ministry of Justice allows registered religious groups to issue civil documents, such as marriage and baptismal certificates. The government recognizes these certificates as legal documents only when prepared by government-licensed clergy. Baptismal certificates are identifying documents with the same legal authority as birth certificates. To obtain official government recognition, a religious group must provide information on the qualifications of its leaders, a membership directory, and a list of the group’s social projects. Registered religious groups must submit annual updates of their membership, projects, and leadership to the MFA.

A 2003 government directive established Vodou as an official religion and accords the right to the Vodou community to issue official documents.

By law, the licensing of members of clergy is a government prerogative. To obtain a license, the prospective religious leader must submit a dossier of 14 documents to the MFA, including a diploma of theology or religious studies, a certificate of moral conduct, and a recommendation letter signed by a registered religious institution. Once the MFA confirms the applicant’s eligibility for a license, a Ministry of Justice official administers an oath, which qualifies the applicant to perform civil ceremonies, such as marriages and baptisms.

A concordat between the Holy See and the government provides the Vatican authority to approve and select a specific number of bishops in the country with government consent. Under the concordat, the government provides a monthly stipend to Catholic priests. The government does not provide stipends to other religious leaders. Catholic and Episcopalian bishops and the head of the Protestant Federation have official license plates and carry diplomatic passports.

Foreign missionaries operating in the country are subject to the same legal and administrative requirements as their domestic counterparts.

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

Government Practices

The MFA and law enforcement authorities at times intervened in cases of violence against Vodou practitioners. According to the MFA’s director general of the Bureau of Worship, in September the MFA facilitated the arrest of a Christian pastor who burned down the house of a Vodou practitioner in Aquin, South Department who had refused to convert to Christianity. MFA officials helped the victim file a criminal complaint and relocate to a different neighborhood.

According to the MFA, as of the end of the year, there were 9,195 certified Protestant pastors, 704 certified Catholic priests, and two certified Vodou clergy. Certification allowed clergy to conduct official marriages, baptisms, and other sacraments. In 2018 the MFA approved the applications of 20 Vodou clergy and submitted their files to the Justice Ministry for final oath-taking, as legally required. The Ministry of Justice granted only two Vodou clergy final authorization that year. During 2019, however, no additional Vodou clergy achieved full official status. According to KNVA representatives, authorities did not approve the other 18 candidates because they were perceived as not supporting the administration of President Jovenel Moise.

The three Muslim communities residing in the country – Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya – individually sought official recognition. According to the president of the National Council for Haitian Muslims, Landy Mathurin, the MFA did not act upon their requests during the year. MFA officials indicated they were continuing to review the Ahmadiyya application, after granting the community a registration number in 2018. All Muslims, regardless of group affiliation, were required to go through a civil ceremony for events such as marriages.

The MFA continued to honor its obligations, such as tax exemptions and diplomatic privileges, to the Catholic Church under the terms of the concordat.

While the government did not tax registered religious groups and traditionally exempted their imports from customs duties, on October 23, the government announced it would end all customs exemptions, including for clergy. The legality and scope of the government’s decision remained unclear through the end of year.

In August the government, through the MOE, granted 50 million gourdes ($570,000) to Catholics; 40 million gourdes ($456,000) to Protestants; and 20 million gourdes ($228,000) to Anglicans to support their respective schools. The allocations reflected the concordat between the government and the Catholic Church, and the large number of Protestant and Anglican schools in the country. The government did not allocate funds to other religious groups. According to the National Council for Haitian Muslims, the four registered Muslim primary schools, all registered in 2010, did not receive any funding. The Bureau of Worship had no discretionary funds during the year to support social programming by religious groups, such as youth conferences, as it had in previous years.

During the year, the MOE accommodated some students’ religious practices by scheduling certain exams on weekdays. The decision was made in response to an August 2018 letter from the Office of Citizen Protection (OPC), which serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman, to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies education commissions. The OPC stated it objected to the practice of holding public university admissions exams on weekends, after it received a complaint from the Seventh-day Adventist Church that requiring exams on Saturdays violated the religious freedom of its adherents.

The Protestant Federation advocated for more authority over the process that determines which individuals the government certifies as Protestant clergy.  The organization stated that with more authority, it could stop unlicensed pastors and churches from acting as agents of Protestants churches and spreading “dangerous messages.” The federation cited the example of a self-proclaimed Protestant prophet, Makenson Dorillas, who made headlines in October when he led an antigovernment protest calling for President Moise’s resignation, although Dorillas had no legal status as a clergyman. Following the protest, the Office of Worship began consulting with Protestant groups to address self-appointed religious leaders who lack official recognition.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Vodou clergy said some practitioners continued to experience violence and social stigmatization for their beliefs and practices, stating that members of the public often accused Vodou practitioners of using “occult powers” to harm and sometimes kill neighbors. According to KNVA representatives, an unknown number of individuals from the town of Mackandal in the Grand’Anse Department attacked with machetes and killed a Vodou priest in September after blaming him for the sudden, unexplained death of a neighbor. The assailants set fire to the priest’s home; reportedly some individuals may have been detained and subsequently released. In October KNVA representatives also reported neighbors accused and attacked a mambo in Port au Prince, who was suspected of using her powers to cause the death of an infant. According to KNVA representatives, at the end of the year, the priestess remained in hiding.

According to media reports, on January 16, police arrested four men suspected of killing well-known Catholic priest Joseph Simoly in December 2017 in Port-au-Prince. While some individuals said Simoly was killed because of his political activism, others said there was no evidence to support that theory.

KNVA representatives reported that, as in previous years, Catholic and Protestant leaders frequently rejected and condemned Vodou practices as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

According to the president of the National Council for Haitian Muslims, Landy Mathurin, Muslims were generally well respected. He said the population had a positive perception of Islam, including of Muslim women choosing to wear hijabs.

The local RFP chapter, whose members include representatives from the Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches as well as the Vodou community, continued to meet, focusing on religious tolerance. During the year, RFP launched a “positive peace initiative” designed to advance development through an absence of conflict, which they stated was an important value for the organization. RFP members also said they attended each other’s religious ceremonies to demonstrate mutual respect.

During his swearing-in ceremony in August, the national chief Vodou priest or ati, Carl-Henry Desmornes, promised to promote environmental protection and the Vodou community’s outreach efforts. Director of the Bureau of Worship Evans Souffrant, Mayor of Tabarre Nice Simon, and Chamber of Deputies Deputy Caleb Desrameaux delivered remarks emphasizing Vodou’s important role in the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement 

Embassy representatives met with government officials, including from the MFA, to emphasize the importance of fair and equal treatment for all religious groups, including religious minorities.

Embassy officials also met with religious leaders from Protestant, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim, and Vodou communities, as well as RFP, to discuss religious freedom and tolerance, and challenges some groups faced in obtaining official certification. In August an embassy representative attended the traditional Vodou swearing-in ceremony of the national chief Vodou priest to demonstrate support for the community. In September a senior embassy official attended the opening dedication ceremony of the Port-au-Prince Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Honduras

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations and thereby acquire tax-exempt status and other government benefits. In August Muslim leaders reported members of their community regularly encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits. These leaders cited the challenges a Muslim group faced when trying to secure a municipal permit for a public humanitarian event on gender-based violence in the town of La Esperanza, Intibuca Department. Some sectors of society continued expressing their concerns and opposition towards political activism by evangelical Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church, citing practices such as prayers at official government events. Seventh-day Adventists stated some public educational institutions did not respect their religious observance on Saturdays because the official work week was Monday to Saturday.

During the year, the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum (FIH) – an interfaith nongovernmental organization (NGO) representing more than 90 religious and civil society groups – and the Evangelical Fellowship of Honduras (CEH) together reported the deaths of four evangelical Protestant pastors. Both groups attributed these deaths to the high prevalence of gang activity and minimal state presence in their areas of operation. The CEH and FIH both reported widespread extortion of church leaders and congregation members by gangs and criminal groups. Muslim leaders reported incidents where evangelical Protestant members appeared at Islamic religious services, displaying intolerance towards their community. The FIH and the Muslim community each reported conducting community events and media outreach to promote religious freedom and tolerance.

U.S. embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights and the autonomous National Commission of Human Rights (CONADEH) to discuss issues of religious freedom, including allegations of discrimination against Muslims. On October 30, embassy officials hosted an interfaith roundtable in San Pedro Sula to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. This discussion touched on a variety of topics, including religious freedom in schools, the challenges of some faith groups in addressing bureaucratic issues with the government, and migration. Embassy officials continued to engage with religious leaders and other members of a wide range of religious communities regarding societal violence and their concerns about the government’s dealings with religious groups in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the Digital Christian Observatory, the most recent survey covering 2017-18, 92 percent of the population is affiliated with a religious organization, with 45 percent identifying as Roman Catholic and 40 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant groups.

Other religious groups, each representing less than 5 percent of the population, include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Episcopalians, Lutherans, Antiochian Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, Moravian Church, and several Anabaptist and Mennonite groups. Evangelical Protestant churches include the Church of God, Assemblies of God, Abundant Life Church, Living Love Church, International Christian Center, and various Great Commission churches. A number of evangelical Protestant churches have no denominational affiliation. The Moravian Church has a broad presence in the La Mosquitia Region in the eastern part of the country. Some indigenous groups and Afro-Hondurans practice African and Amerindian faiths or incorporate elements of Christianity, African, and Amerindian religions into syncretistic religious practices and beliefs.

According to a representative of the Muslim community, there are approximately 2,600 members, mostly Sunni; approximately 90 percent are converts. The Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic community counts nearly 1,800 members. The Jewish community states it has approximately 275 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions as long as that exercise does not contravene other laws or public order. The same article of the constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding public office or making political statements. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations. Organizations seeking status as a legal entity must apply to the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization – describing their internal organization, bylaws, and goals. Approved organizations must submit annual financial and activity reports to the government to remain registered. They may apply to the Ministry of Finance to receive benefits, such as tax exemptions and customs duty waivers. Unregistered religious organizations are unable to obtain tax-exempt status or other benefits.

The constitution states public education is secular and allows for the establishment of private schools, including schools run by religious organizations. Public schools do not teach religion; however, private schools may include religion as part of the curriculum. Various religious organizations run schools, including the Roman Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and evangelical Protestant churches. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children receive, including religious education. The government dictates a minimum standardized curriculum for all schools. Some private religiously affiliated schools require participation in religious events to graduate.

The government is a party to the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights, which recognizes the right to conscientious objection to obligatory military service, including for religious reasons.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain entry and residence permits and mandates a local institution or individual sponsor a missionary’s application for residency and submit it to immigration authorities. The government has agreements with the CEH, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, to facilitate entry and residence permits for their missionaries. Groups with which the government does not have written agreements are required to provide proof of employment and income for their missionaries.

Foreign religious workers may request residency for up to five years. To renew their residence permits, religious workers must submit proof of continued employment with the sponsoring religious group at least 30 days before their residency expires. According to the immigration law, individuals who “fraudulently exercise their religious profession or office or commit fraud against the health or religious beliefs of citizens of the country, or the national patrimony,” may be fined or face other legal consequences.

The criminal code protects clergy authorized to operate in the country from being required by the court or the Attorney General’s Office to testify about privileged information obtained in confidence during a religious confession. The law does not require vicars, bishops, and archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church and comparably ranked individuals from other legally recognized religious groups to appear in court if subpoenaed. They are required, however, to make a statement at a location of their choosing.

The official regulations for the penal system state that penitentiaries guarantee the free exercise of religion without preference for one specific religion, as long as that worship is not against the law or public order. Prisoners have access to religious counseling from leaders of their faith.

The government authorizes clergy from all religions to conduct marriage ceremonies. The government legally recognizes only civil marriages conducted with a lawyer authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. Most couples complete the civil ceremony before the religious one.

The official work week is Monday to Saturday, with no exceptions for religious groups that celebrate Saturday as a religious holiday or day of rest.

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

Government Practices

Some religious organizations, including the FIH, said the government continued to give preference to the Roman Catholic Church and to religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH. The FIH again stated the government routinely invited Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders, but not representatives from other religious groups, to lead prayers at government events and to participate in official functions, committees, and other joint government-civil society activities.

The official NGO registry office – the Directorate of Regulation, Registration, and Monitoring of Civil Associations (DRRSAC) – is located within the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization. At year’s end, the DRRSAC registered 120 religious associations, compared with 133 in 2018. According to the DRRSAC, it did not deny any registration requests by religious associations during the year.

In August Muslim leaders reported members of their community regularly encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits. These leaders cited the challenges a Muslim group faced when trying to secure a municipal permit for a public humanitarian event on gender-based violence in the town of La Esperanza, Intibuca Department.

Representatives of CONADEH stated they had not received recent complaints alleging violations of religious freedom but said they would remain vigilant.

According to media reports, in April the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization announced the appointment of Rabbi Aaron Lankry, a member of Chabad and a noncitizen, as “Chief Rabbi of Honduras.” A representative of the secretariat later stated that Lankry had registered an NGO.

Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to express concerns regarding religious freedom at schools and other private and public institutions; they said students had problems obtaining permission to be absent from class or excused from taking exams on Saturdays. Seventh-day Adventist representatives said some of their members faced continued discrimination when applying for or retaining jobs because their religious beliefs did not permit them to work on Saturdays. They again noted the Supreme Court had not addressed a constitutional challenge that Adventist students filed in 2015 seeking alternatives to taking classes or exams on Saturdays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The CEH and FIH continued to state most violence against its members originated from criminal organizations, noting many of its member churches were present in areas of high violence with minimal state presence. The FIH and CEH together reported the deaths of four evangelical pastors in urban areas, including the August 25 killing of a pastor in Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Department, and the October 9 killing of a pastor in San Pedro Sula, Cortes Department. Both groups attributed these deaths to the high prevalence of gang activity and minimal state presence in their areas of responsibility. The CEH expressed satisfaction that authorities were investigating the four killings but underscored authorities had made little progress in their investigation of the October 9 killing.

Both the CEH and FIH noted an increase in threats targeting evangelical Protestant pastors and church leaders located in areas known for gang or narcotics trafficking activities. The FIH said evangelical Protestant pastors and missionaries had left the historically violent Chamelecon neighborhood, a suburb of San Pedro Sula, because of death threats. The CEH reported the kidnapping and killing of an evangelical Protestant pastor in Comayagua, Comayagua Department. The CEH stated the killing was likely tied to gang activity. The CEH also cited the alleged July kidnapping of another evangelical Protestant pastor in Colon Department, who turned up alive following his 16-day disappearance. The CEH reported instances where member churches were robbed and vandalized; it also reported widespread extortion of Protestant church leaders and congregation members by criminal organizations. Despite the attacks, the CEH continued to positively assess government efforts to dismantle gangs, noting an overall decline in the level of violence and increase in the incarceration of many gang operatives.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa commented that its priests and laypersons operated throughout the country. It did not record any killings of Church officials but reported infrequent incidents of robberies and threats.

Muslim leaders reported incidents where evangelical Protestant members appeared at Islamic religious services, displaying intolerance towards their community. Muslim leaders noted they were approached by evangelical Protestants at their place of worship at the Centro America Shopping Center in Tegucigalpa. The Muslim leaders said evangelical Protestants told the Muslims to leave the country and defaced books on Islam on a table in front of the meeting site.

Muslim women reported they were reluctant to wear a hijab on the way to their workplace because of negative comments. Some Muslims said private sector offices continued to prohibit women from wearing hijabs, and that individuals in some government offices also showed intolerance for traditional religious clothing.

Muslim community representatives said they received a few derogatory messages on social media but emphasized they received far more positive and supportive comments than negative messages.

Seventh-day Adventists reported the continued refusal of certain private institutions, including places of employment and schools, to permit them to observe Saturday as a day of rest.

The FIH and the Muslim community each reported conducting community events and outreach to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The FIH reported conducting three press conferences and 12 additional media appearances. Muslim leaders said they used social media messages to provide information about Islam to the general public.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights and CONADEH to discuss issues of religious freedom, including allegations of discrimination against Muslims.

Embassy officials continued discussions with religious leaders and members of religious communities, including Roman Catholics, the CEH, the FIH, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Muslims, regarding societal violence and concerns about the government’s dealings with religious groups, religious observance at school, and legal recognition for religious organizations. On September 26, embassy officials met with Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez to discuss religious freedom in the country, migration, and violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

On October 30, embassy officials hosted an interfaith roundtable in San Pedro Sula to discuss religious freedom and tolerance, including religious freedom in schools and the challenges of some faith groups in addressing bureaucratic issues, such as taxation of personnel and difficulties obtaining residency permits for foreign clergy, as well as migration.

Mexico

Executive Summary

The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Associations (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with 11 in 2018. Government officials again stated that the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not targeted attacks based on religious faith. The press reported representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 and led to the expulsion of evangelical Protestant families from the town for practicing a religion other than Roman Catholicism and refusing to support traditional cultural events. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived in a separate community. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 represented other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals.

Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Killings and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported the killings of five religious leaders and the kidnapping of three others by unidentified individuals. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row, stating it was a reflection of the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups targeted Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to CSW, the 28 families whom local authorities expelled from Yashtinin, Chiapas State, in 2015 were still unable to return home because they refused to participate in traditional indigenous cultural events. According to the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED), non-Catholics and atheists were most likely to face discrimination in education, health, and at the workplace. The report found religious minorities tended to have slightly lower than average rates of school attendance, labor contracts, and access to medical benefits. Individuals identifying with these groups said they also had a slightly higher rate of illiteracy compared with the national average.

U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government counterparts, religious organizations, and NGOs throughout the country to discuss concerns about violence toward religious leaders, as well as reports of discrimination toward religious minorities in some communities. Embassy officials met with members of religious groups and NGOs to gather details about specific cases, including the Cuamontax Huazalingo Protestant community in Hidalgo State.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 127.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 83 percent identify as Catholic, 5 percent evangelical Protestant, 1.6 percent Pentecostal, 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 0.5 percent Jewish. Other religious groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Muslims. More than 2 percent of the population report practicing a religion not otherwise specified, and nearly 5 percent report not practicing any religion. Some indigenous persons adhere to syncretic religions drawing from indigenous beliefs.

Official statistics based on self-identification during the 2010 census sometimes differ from the membership figures stated by religious groups. Approximately 315,000 individuals identified themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Church of Jesus Christ officials, however, state their membership is approximately 1.3 million. There are large Protestant communities in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. In Chiapas, evangelical Protestant leaders state nearly half of the state’s 2.4 million inhabitants are members of evangelical groups, including Seventh-day Adventists; however, fewer than 5 percent of 2010 census respondents in Chiapas identified themselves as evangelical Protestant.

According to the 2010 census, the Jewish community totals approximately 67,500 persons, of whom nearly 42,000 live in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to SEGOB, nearly half of the country’s approximately 4,000 Muslims are concentrated in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to a 2017 Pew Foundation study, the Muslim community numbers fewer than 10,000 persons. There is also an Ahmadi Muslim population of several hundred living in Chiapas State, most of whom are converts of ethnic Tzotzil Maya origin. There are also small indigenous communities of Baha’is that number in the hundreds. An estimated half of the country’s approximately 100,000 Mennonites are concentrated in the state of Chihuahua.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all persons have the right to follow or adopt the religion of their choosing, or not to follow a religion. This freedom includes the right to participate individually or collectively, both in public and in private, in ceremonies, devotions, and acts of worship if they do not constitute an offense otherwise prohibited by law. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Secularism is mentioned in three other articles, including one dedicated to education. Philosophical freedoms of conscience and religion receive equal treatment by the state. Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion. Religious acts of public worship should be held in places of worship. Individuals who conduct religious ceremonies outside of places of worship, which requires a permit, are subject to regulatory law. Active clergy may not hold public office, advocate partisan political views, support political candidates, or publicly oppose the laws or institutions of the state.

To establish a religious association, applicants must certify the church or other religious group observes, practices, propagates, or instructs a religious doctrine or body of religious beliefs; has conducted religious activities in the country for at least five years; has established domicile in the country; and shows sufficient assets to achieve its purpose. Registered associations may freely organize their internal structures and adopt bylaws or rules pertaining to their governance and operations, including the training and appointment of their clergy. They may engage in public worship and celebrate acts for the fulfillment of the association’s purpose lawfully and without profit. They may propagate their doctrine in accordance with applicable regulations and participate in the creation, management, maintenance, and operation of private welfare, educational, and health institutions, provided the institutions are not for profit.

Religious groups are not required to register with DGAR to operate. Registration is required to negotiate contracts, purchase or rent land, apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, or hold religious meetings outside of customary places of worship. Religious groups must apply for permits to construct new buildings or convert existing buildings into places of worship. Any religious building constructed after January 27, 1992, is the property of the religious group that built it and is subject to relevant taxes. All religious buildings erected before then are considered part of the national patrimony and owned by the state.

Religious associations must notify the government of their intention to hold a religious meeting outside their licensed place or places of worship. Religious associations may not hold political meetings of any kind or own or operate radio or television stations. Government permission is required for commercial radio or television to transmit religious programming.

The federal government coordinates religious affairs through SEGOB. Within SEGOB, DGAR promotes religious tolerance, conducts conflict mediation, and investigates cases of religious intolerance. If a party presents a dispute based on allegations of religious intolerance, DGAR may mediate a solution. Each of the 32 states has offices responsible for religious affairs. CONAPRED is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.

The law provides prisoners dignified and equal treatment from prison staff without distinction based on religious preferences.

The constitution requires that public education be secular and not include religious doctrine. Religious groups may operate private schools that teach religion and hold religious ceremonies at their schools. Private schools affiliated with a religious group are open to all students regardless of their religious beliefs. Students in private schools are exempt from participating in religious courses and activities if the students are not affiliated with the school’s religious group. Homeschooling is allowed at the secondary level after completion of schooling at an accredited primary school.

A visa category exists for foreign clergy and religious associates to obtain a temporary resident visa or visitor visa without permission to perform paid religious activities.

The constitution recognizes the right of indigenous communities to autonomy and codifies their right to use their own legal systems for the resolution of conflicts within their communities, while respecting human rights as defined in the constitution and the international treaties to which the country is a signatory. The constitution also protects the right of indigenous leaders to practice their own “uses and customs.” This right of self-governance for indigenous communities sometimes conflicts with other rights provided by the constitution, including freedom of religion, for members of those communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It claims both an interpretative statement and a reservation relating to freedom of religion in the covenant. Article 18 of the ICCPR states that countries may limit religious freedom only when it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The country’s interpretative statement states that religious acts must be performed in places of worship unless granted prior permission and that the education of religious ministers is not officially recognized.

Government Practices

DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with 11 in 2018. Most of these cases involved religious minorities, generally families, who stated members of the majority religious community where they lived had deprived them of their rights and basic services, including water and electricity. At year’s end, all of the cases were pending; three were from Hidalgo State, one from Guerrero State, one from Puebla State, one from Chiapas State, and one from Mexico State. According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government because the federal government did not have jurisdiction. Municipal and state officials commonly mediated disputes between religious groups. Some groups again said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal mediated solutions. According to CSW, informal mediated solutions rarely led to change in the status quo. For example, Protestants in the community of Cuamontax, Hidalgo State, signed a conflict resolution agreement in February mandating their participation in, and financial contribution to, Catholic festivals. The groups continued to report there were insufficient resources devoted to federal and state agencies that work on religious freedom.

According to press reports, local authorities expelled an indigenous family of 10 from their village of Tajlovijho, Chiapas State, in August after the family converted to evangelical Protestantism.

Representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 between community members and evangelical Protestant families, who were expelled from the village for practicing a religion other than Catholicism. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived isolated from the main community.

In April CSW published follow-up reporting on a case that began in 2012 in the community of Yashtinin, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas State. In 2012 village authorities detained 16 individuals and then expelled them from the community for converting from Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism. By 2015, 28 families had been forced to leave Yashtinin for their religious beliefs. During the year, CSW representatives met with some of the displaced persons and found that although authorities were notified of the situation and promised recourse, the individuals still were not allowed to return.

As of November 7, there were 9,464 religious associations registered by DGAR, compared with 9,416 in 2018, an increase of 48. Registered groups included 9,421 Christian (an increase of 315 from 2018), 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups. Baha’is and Ahmadi Muslims remained unregistered. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 representing other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals. The total number of associations was only 48 higher than 2018 because some previously registered groups removed themselves.

NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that several rural and indigenous communities expected residents, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings, and in some cases adhere to the majority religion. Local authorities detained 12 evangelical Christians in April in the community of Chiquinivalvo, located in the municipality of Zinacantan, Chiapas State, for refusing to participate in a Catholic celebration. Authorities released the detainees after federal government intervention with the Zinacantan City Council. When the detainees returned home following their release, local authorities had disconnected their water and electricity.

According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the stated goal of ensuring the exercise of religious freedom and resolving conflicts involving religious intolerance. On September 20, SEGOB launched the “National Strategy for the Promotion of Respect and Tolerance of Religious Diversity: We Create Peace.” Government officials emphasized the separation of church and state would not be impacted by the new strategy. According to Jorge Lee Galindo, deputy director general in SEGOB’s Religious Issues Office, the strategy was a concerted effort by elements of the government to work together to promote religious freedom. It comprises three pillars focused on raising awareness about the country’s religious diversity; improving dialogue among religious groups; and creating networks at the state and municipal levels dedicated to religious freedom. Actions included convening roundtables and workshops and implementing courses for state-level officials and elementary school students about religious freedom issues.

In May the Commission for Human Rights in Mexico City held the “First Gathering for Cultural Diversity,” which focused on religious diversity. Present at the event were representatives from CONAPRED, the federal Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination in Mexico City, and the federal Department of Education. During the event, CONAPRED President Alexandra Haas Pacuic acknowledged religious minorities in the country faced prejudice and barriers, including at institutional levels. She also identified religion as one of the main causes of discrimination in the country, particularly in public settings, public transportation, school, and work. Haas Pacuic further noted discrimination based on religion often intersected with other forms of discrimination, including racial and ethnic, and that religious disputes were also commonly related to disputes over natural resources or political issues. Representatives from Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim, and Sikh religious groups participated in the meeting.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. The CMC identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row. According to some NGOs and media reports, organized crime groups continued to target Catholic priests and other religious leaders and subject them to killings, extortion attempts, death threats, kidnappings, and intimidation, reportedly due to their perceived access to financial resources or their work helping migrants. Federal government officials and Catholic Church authorities stated these incidents were not a result of targeting for religious beliefs, but rather, incidents related to the overall security situation and crime. Some NGOs stated they believed criminals targeted Catholic priests because communities viewed them as moral authority figures.

According to press reports in June, attackers shot and killed Pastor Aaron Bosques Montes of the Roma Christian Church in Cuernavaca, Morelos State. Bosques Montes reportedly resisted extortion attempts by a criminal group and evaded an attempted kidnapping by the same group. The pastor had filed a formal complaint against local gang leaders, the Ortega Velez brothers, with the Attorney General’s Office, the contents of which were allegedly leaked.

According to CSW, an assailant killed Pastor Alfrery Lictor Cruz Canseco in his car after an August 19 church service in Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca State. Members of the congregation detained the attacker, who was subsequently arrested by authorities, but a possible motive for the crime was not made public. Media sites suggested the attack could be related to criminal groups perceiving religious leaders as threats to their authority.

According to media reports and an official statement released by the Diocese of Matamoros, on August 22, Catholic priest Jose Martin Guzman Vega was found stabbed to death inside his parish, Cristo Rey de La Paz, on the outskirts of Matamoros, Tamaulipas State. Neighbors said they heard cries for help and found the priest near the church’s entrance. The Tamaulipas State Attorney General’s Office was investigating the killing but made no arrests by year’s end.

In November nine members of families belonging to an offshoot Mormon group associated with the Church of Jesus Christ and living in Rancho La Mora, Sonora State, were ambushed and killed by individuals associated with a drug cartel. According to Mexican and FBI investigations of the killings, the motive of the killers was not related to the victims’ faith or membership in a religious group, because neither the individuals nor the Mormon group were the intended targets.

CSW expressed particular concern about religious freedom violations in Hidalgo State because of continuing problems related to displacements of minority religious groups and lack of progress in addressing these displacements. In September attackers killed evangelical Protestant Pastor Omar Romero Cruz and another person in Ixmiquilpan, San Miguel, Hidalgo State. CSW reported the assailants were believed to be members of organized crime, but authorities reported they had not established a motive, and the investigation continued through year’s end. CSW reported that on August 3, a criminal group that had previously attempted to kidnap Cuban migrants for ransom abducted evangelical Pastor Aaron Mendez Ruiz, director of a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas State. Media outlets stated the Cartel del Noreste (Northeast Cartel) was responsible for the kidnapping. At year’s end, the pastor’s whereabouts remained unknown. Media outlets and social media accounts reported the same cartel was responsible for the disappearance of Pastor Ricardo Alcaraz in Nuevo Laredo on September 15. He had not been released or found by year’s end.

Jewish community representatives said they conducted an assessment of online anti-Semitic messages, symbols, and language from January through June, finding that Twitter accounted for 87.1 percent, news sources 8.5 percent, online forums 3.5 percent, and blogs 0.9 percent. The representatives said the number of anti-Semitic attacks was approximately the same as in 2018. Anti-Semitic tweets typically referenced the Holocaust and Hitler, along with other derogatory language.

Religions for Peace, an interreligious working group, continued to be active in the country, conducting interfaith roundtables and outreach events. Member groups included the Jewish Communities of Mexico, Buddhist Community of Mexico, Sufi Yerrahi Community of Mexico, Sikh Dharma Community of Mexico, Anglican Church, Lutheran Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised these issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. U.S. officials raised concerns regarding the continued killings of Catholic priests and abuses against religious minorities, especially evangelical Protestants, by religious majority groups and local authorities.

The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of the issue and reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

The embassy posted multiple times on social media using the hashtag #LibertadReligiosa (Freedom of Religion), including posts by the former ambassador on Rosh Hashannah, Hanukkah, and Virgen de Guadalupe holidays.

Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, Tribuna Israelita, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers working on humanitarian issues, assess the status of religious freedom, and express support for religious tolerance.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship; and states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” According to numerous press reports, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo used hateful rhetoric condoning and inciting harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks targeting Roman Catholic clergy, worshippers, and places of worship. These reports stated the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP), along with progovernment groups and ruling party (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) activists, routinely harassed and intimidated religious leaders and desecrated religious spaces. Catholic leaders reported physical attacks and verbal insults, death threats, and intimidation campaigns by the NNP and groups associated with President Ortega and Vice President Murillo, such as the Sandinista Youth. The NNP and progovernment groups attacked Catholic worshippers on numerous occasions after they attended church services in which they prayed for political prisoners, including at least two occasions in which NNP officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at worshippers as they left Mass. According to religious leaders and media, individuals tied to the government or government proxies continued to commit acts of vandalism and desecration of sacred items in Catholic churches and cemeteries throughout the country. Police and progovernment supporters frequently disrupted religious services by playing loud music through speakers positioned outside of churches. Many religious leaders said the government politicized religion in the context of the ongoing political crisis and social conflict in the country. Religious leaders said the government and its proxies took aggressive actions, including harassment, death threats, and physical assaults, against clergy perceived as critical of the government. According to local press, Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance to peaceful protesters in 2018 continued to be victims of government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies on unfounded charges, withholding tax exemptions, reducing budget appropriations, and denying religious services for political prisoners. In October social media accounts posted photos of students bashing pinatas made in the image of Catholic priests hanging from nooses. Some Twitter accounts linked to the Sandinista Youth wing of the FSLN circulated the photos with the caption, “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” Catholic leaders said the government continued to use religious festivities, symbolism, and language in its laws and policies to promote its political agenda, a practice that Catholic leaders said undermined the Church’s religious integrity.

A Russian national who in 2018 threw sulfuric acid at a priest of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua during confession, was found guilty of charges on bodily injury and exposure of others to imminent danger. The individual was sentenced to eight years in prison in May. In August media reported the attacker was seen on a plane flying to Panama. There was no official statement confirming or denying the release of the attacker from prison.

In July the Vice President singled out government leaders in Nicaragua for their persecution of Catholic clergy, stating the government targeted “Church leaders for defending democracy and religious freedom.” Senior U.S. government officials repeatedly called upon the Ortega government to cease violence against and attacks on Catholic clergy, worshippers, and churches. U.S. embassy officials continued to raise concerns over restrictions on religious freedom in the context of broader repression with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. Embassy officials met regularly with Catholic Church leaders, as well as a wide variety of representatives from other religious groups, including evangelical Protestants, Moravian Lutherans, Muslims, and the Jewish community, to discuss restrictions on religious freedom and to foster religious tolerance.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nicaragua on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2005 census (the most recent available), conducted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census, 59 percent of the population is Catholic and 22 percent evangelical Protestant, including Pentecostals, Mennonites, Moravian Lutherans, and Baptists. According to a survey conducted in July by Borge and Associates, the percentage of evangelical Protestants is increasing and the percentage of Catholics decreasing. Borge and Associates found Catholics make up 43 percent of the population, evangelical Protestants 41 percent, and religious believers without affiliation 14 percent. According to the Borge survey, groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Moravian Lutheran Church, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers.

The Moravian Lutheran Church is largely concentrated in the country’s North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions. A majority of its members are of indigenous or Afro-Caribbean descent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship, and it states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” The constitution states there is no official religion; however, the law entrusts government-controlled, community-level action groups, known as Family Committees, with the responsibility for promoting “Christian values” at the community level.

The requirements for registration of religious groups – except for the Catholic Church, which has a concordat with the government – are similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Registration requires an application, articles of association, and designation of officers. The National Assembly must approve a group’s application for registration or legal standing. Following approval, the group must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or NGO, which allows it to incur legal obligations, enter into contracts, and benefit from tax and customs exemptions. Following registration, religious groups are subject to the same regulations as other NGOs or associations, regardless of their religious nature. The Catholic Church as a religious group is not required to register because its presence in the country predates the legislation; however, the government requires organizations dedicated to charity or other social work affiliated with the Catholic Church to register.

Ministry of Education regulations for primary school education establish that the basis for the methodology and curriculum for elementary grade levels are the “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity” principles and “Human Development” policy. The government’s 2018-21 Human Development policy establishes the promotion of religious and faith-based festivities as a key component of all government policy.

Missionaries of all religious affiliations must obtain religious worker visas and provide information regarding the nature of their missionary work before the Ministry of Interior will authorize entry into the country. A locally based religious organization must provide documentation and request travel authorization from the Ministry of Government seven days prior to the arrival of the visiting person or religious group. The process generally takes several weeks to complete.

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

Government Practices

In July the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua reported “constant harassment” of participants in various public events by the government, including at religious ceremonies and masses, particularly when those participants were thought to hold antigovernment views. The IACHR reported that on June 15, groups associated with the government attacked worshippers who had attended a Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary in Leon. The report also noted attacks by police on June 16 and June 30 at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua, stating that police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound grenades on worshippers emerging from masses dedicated to the release of political prisoners. Nine people were reported injured in the attacks. The IACHR stated, “These events happened in a context of threats against the Catholic Church and against religious leaders, issued as intimidating comments on social media or as graffiti on the walls of some religious buildings.” According to the report, one priest from Esteli left the country after receiving threats.

Father Edwing Roman, a priest granted precautionary (protective) measures by the IACHR since 2018, continued to be a victim of harassment and received multiple death threats during the year. According to press reports, on February 13, police detained him in his vehicle. The police searched his vehicle and attempted to confiscate his telephone while on a call with a journalist. A policewoman hit Roman’s face in the attempt. Moments after the police released him, progovernment social media accounts circulated defamatory information against the priest, stating he was stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol. The posts included photographs showing liquor bottles inside his car. Roman said the police planted the bottles as part of the government’s continued effort to discredit him.

On November 14, at the Church of Saint Michael in Masaya, Father Roman hosted a group of mothers of political prisoners as they began a hunger strike to demand the release of their children. According to La Prensa, a heavy police presence surrounded the church within minutes, impeding access and preventing anyone inside the church from exiting. Within hours, the government cut off water and electricity to the church, leading to the spoilage of Roman’s insulin supply kept in a refrigerator in the church. Due to the electrical outage in the church, during the morning of November 15, a parishioner attempted to hand Roman a new supply of insulin and small bags of ice through a window, but police pushed the person away. Police arrested 16 individuals who arrived at the church to provide the striking mothers with water. According to Confidencial, a digital press outlet, they were charged with trafficking of weapons, munitions, and explosives and would face trial on January 30, 2020; lawyers for the accused said the police planted military-grade weapons inside their vehicles after detaining them. On November 22, Roman and the hunger strikers left the church in a Red Cross ambulance and were treated at a local hospital. At year’s end, water and electricity had not been restored to the church.

According to media, on November 18, as families of political prisoners began a hunger strike in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua, government-aligned groups rallied outside the cathedral. According to media, as darkness fell, NNP officers and riot police, who had surrounded and blocked access to the cathedral, allowed a group of at least 30 government-aligned individuals inside the cathedral. The reports stated that once inside, they physically assaulted Father Rodolfo Lopez and Sister Arelys Guzman and desecrated sacred items and spaces, while the NNP officers and riot police remained outside and did not intervene. The events were captured on video and circulated on social media. According to the reports, the government-aligned individuals spent the night of November 18 beside the altar of the cathedral, menacing the hunger strikers who had locked themselves inside the sacristy.

The Catholic Church continued to speak out against violence perpetrated by the government and progovernment groups and a lack of democratic institutions through clergy homilies and pastoral letters, calling for respect of human rights and the release of political prisoners. In one letter dated May 1, the Conference of Bishops stated that, given the government’s current posture, they expected pain and suffering to continue for most Nicaraguan families. “Political prisoners, lack of respect for constitutional rights, exiles, refugees, asylees, poverty, unemployment, insecurity… show that without the presence of God who has placed his tent among us, we have no future.” They also addressed in the same letter the absence of independence among government bodies and lack of basic freedoms.

On November 19, the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America and the Caribbean issued a statement calling for justice and denouncing the violent targeting of opponents of the Ortega-Murillo government. The statement said, “We want to continue being attentive to the voices of those who are suffering the unmerciful tyranny of power that tries to subject the dreams of freedom and democracy through terror, repression, torture, and killings.”

In April Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Baez, termed by multiple press outlets, including La Prensa and Reuters, as one of the most outspoken critics of government human rights abuses, was recalled to the Vatican indefinitely. Independent media and observers interpreted the Vatican’s decision as a response to the constant harassment and death threats against him. In 2018, FSLN partisans demanded Baez leave the country and return to the Vatican, from “where he never should have left.”

During the year, sources provided different estimates regarding how many clergy had remained in exile and how many had returned. They did not provide details, stating fear that the government could retaliate against returning clergy.

In speeches during the year, President Ortega frequently stated the “bishops” did not stand with “the people” against sanctions and other “aggressions.” In a November speech, Ortega told a crowd in Revolution Plaza that “high priests are always asking that Nicaragua be crucified and with those high priests are the cowards, the traitors to their country, who go on their knees to ask that Nicaragua be crucified.” According to local human rights organizations and political analysts, Ortega and FSLN proxies frequently used this type of language to vilify and dehumanize the opposition.

Religious groups said the government continued to politicize religious beliefs, language, and traditions, including by coopting religion for its own political purposes. Religious groups also said that as a form of retaliation stemming from the country’s sociopolitical crisis that began in April 2018, the government continued to infringe on religious leaders’ rights to practice faith-based activities, including providing safe spaces in churches to students and others fleeing violence. Catholic clergy and media reported cases of government officials, including President Ortega, slandering, stigmatizing, and urging supporters to retaliate against houses of worship and clergy for their perceived opposition to the government.

With an economic crisis that sources stated was precipitated by the government’s violent suppression of prodemocracy protests in 2018, the national budget shrank substantially. Budget cuts to religious groups continued. Following robust funding in 2018 and dramatically decreased funding in 2019, funding for both Catholic and Protestant churches and religious groups was eliminated entirely from the 2020 budget. Local media viewed this as retribution for religious leaders’ outspoken opposition to the government, particularly among Catholic clergy.

On November 2, media reported government supporters and FSLN partisans entered Catholic cemeteries in several parts of the country where families were celebrating the Day of the Dead and desecrated tombs of individuals killed by government forces and pro-Ortega militias, commonly called “parapolice,” in the April 2018 prodemocracy uprising. Media reported that NNP officers and local FSLN officials stood by as the desecration occurred. Media also reported acts of vandalism against Catholic churches, including graffiti painted on their walls stating, “devils in cassocks” and “coup plotters,” terms identified by local human rights organizations as used regularly by the government and its supporters against those they perceived as enemies.

Catholic clergy said the government denied them access to prisons following the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. Prior to April 2018, clergy said, they regularly entered prisons to celebrate Mass and provide communion and confession to detainees. Media reported on numerous occasions a large presence of NNP officers and police vehicles surrounding the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua. The officers intimidated worshippers and denied them access to the cathedral, stating the cathedral was closed or closing access to nearby streets.

According to press and social media reports, Catholic Church leaders throughout the country continued to experience harassment from government supporters, who often acted in tandem with police. In November Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes publicly called for an end to the harassment of clergy and churches. Other Catholic leaders privately said they felt fear and intimidation when celebrating Mass. Priests said they often saw progovernment civilians attempt to intimidate them into public silence on political issues by recording their Sunday homilies, a practice that did not occur prior to April 2018. According to media, in October during a Catholic religious procession in Esteli, police together with masked parapolice lined the streets and intimidated the participants with high caliber weapons. The congregation took refuge inside the cathedral behind closed doors. At one point, parapolice pointed a gun at a group of seminarians inside the church premises, prompting a seminarian to scuffle with the parapolice in an attempt to block the parapolice from shooting.

Ministry of Education policy for public school curricula continued to require “Christian-based” education through civics classes and student participation in state-sponsored religious events. Notwithstanding these requirements, a Catholic bishop said he received reports from multiple localities that the government prohibited public schools from hosting religious services during end-of-school-year activities, a longstanding tradition in both public and private schools. The Ministry of Education did not issue an official statement confirming or denying the bishop’s statement.

Photographs posted on social media depicting university students bashing pinatas resembling priests hanging from nooses went viral in October. Signs attached to the pinatas read, “the enemies of the people.” Media identified the individuals in the photographs as members of student body governments affiliated with the Sandinista Youth wing of the ruling FSLN. In several re-tweets of the images, accounts linked to the Sandinista Youth encouraged followers to “be a patriot, kill a priest.” Civil society groups denounced the heightened harassment of clergy through FSLN-aligned accounts on social media during the week of September 30-October 6.

Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders said the government continued to restrict travel selectively for some visa applicants intending to visit the country for religious purposes based on the perceived political affiliation of the applicant’s local sponsor. According to Catholic clergy, a 2016 regulation instructing all churches to request entry authorization for their missionaries or religious authorities continued in effect.

According to media, on October 31, the government cut off the electricity supply to a senior assistance home under the administration of a Catholic parish in Matagalpa, despite having paid all outstanding electricity bills. The same parish hosted a food drive for political prisoners on October 18.

In October Despacho 505, a digital newspaper, reported the government’s repression of the Catholic Church had “reached the altars.” Cardinal Brenes publicly stated that despite the church having met all the government’s administrative requirements, the General Office of Customs retained without justification a shipping container that included specially processed wine used for the celebration of the Eucharist during Mass. In November, after the cardinal’s public statements and the papal nuncio’s intervention, customs officials released the sacramental wine.

Caritas of Nicaragua, the Catholic Church’s social service organization, said the customs office continued to hold 13 containers belonging to Caritas since April 2018 with no explanation for the delay. Caritas said these containers held donations of medical equipment and educational and health material intended for their social work. Caritas also said that since September 2018 the customs office continued to hold a separate container with Bibles. Caritas representatives said the organization, accredited in the country since 1965, had not received since March 2018 its annually renewable certificate from the Ministry of Interior, which technically gave it permission to operate in the country. Caritas representatives said the failure to renew the certificate impeded the NGO from receiving tax exemptions, prohibited the importation of its materials, and hindered its ability to bring in medical missions as part of its social services. The representatives said the organization had not previously had administrative issues with the government in its recent history. They stated they had to reduce their social services because of harassment from government supporters in the communities where they worked.

In November a worker at a Christian, non-Catholic charity in the north-central region of the country reported police harassment, surveillance, and unlawful entry into the worker’s home; the worker had noted his prior affiliation with opposition political parties.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A Russian national who in December 2018 threw sulfuric acid at a priest of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua during confession, was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison by the Sixth Criminal District Court in May. In August media reported witnesses seeing the attacker on a plane flying to Panama. There was no official statement confirming or denying the release of the attacker from prison.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In July the Vice President singled out government leaders in Nicaragua for their persecution of Catholic clergy, stating that the government had targeted “Church leaders for defending democracy and religious freedom.” Through public statements and official social media accounts, senior U.S. government leaders and the embassy repeatedly called on the government to cease violence and attacks on the Catholic Church and expressed the U.S. government’s support for faith communities in their fight for human rights, democracy, and freedom. Embassy officials continued to raise concerns over restrictions on religious freedom in the context of broader repression with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.

The Ambassador and his staff met regularly with senior Catholic Church leaders, as well as with leaders from a diverse selection of evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, the Nicaraguan Islamic Association, and the Jewish community. At these meetings, embassy representatives discussed concerns about the politicization of religion, governmental retaliation against politically active religious groups, and limitations on the freedom of religion and fostering diversity and tolerance.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nicaragua on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Panama

Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and executive decrees provide for freedom of religion and worship and prohibit discrimination based on religion. The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but not as the state religion. Public schools continued to teach Catholicism, but parents could exempt their children from religion classes. Some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses and cited the high level of government support provided the Catholic Church for the January World Youth Day. Although local Catholic organizers invited and included members of other religious groups to participate in World Youth Day, some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event.

On April 30, representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths participated in an interreligious event to pray for peace during the country’s general election campaign. This was the first time an interreligious event took place around an election. On June 25, religious leaders from multiple faiths joined an event to sign the Cordoba Declaration, which recognizes Latin America and the Caribbean as a “Zone of Religious Coexistence.” On October 29, the Catholic University of Santa Maria La Antigua (USMA) hosted an international symposium on religious freedom, humanitarian assistance, and human dignity, jointly hosted by Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

U.S. embassy officials met on several occasions with government officials and continued to raise questions about fairness in the distribution of education subsidies for religious-affiliated schools and the need for equal treatment of all religious groups before the law. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met frequently with religious leaders to discuss government treatment of members of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions and treatment of members of religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The Ministry of Health estimates 69.7 percent of the population is Catholic and 18 percent evangelical Protestant. Episcopalian and Methodist bishops state their communities have 11,000 and 1,500 members, respectively. Jewish leaders estimate their community at 15,000 members, centered largely in Panama City. According to a leader within the Shia Muslim community, the Muslim community, including Shia and Sunni, numbers approximately 14,000 and is centered primarily in Panama City, Colon, and Penonome, with smaller concentrations in David and Santiago in the western part of the country. The Muslim community includes Shia Muslims, primarily of Lebanese origin, and Sunni Muslims, primarily of Arab and Pakistani origin. The Baha’i community reports 6,000 members; the Buddhist community 3,000 members; and the Lutheran Church 1,000 members. Smaller religious groups, found primarily in Panama City and other large urban areas, include Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, Pentecostals, and Rastafarians. Baptists and Methodists derive their membership in large part from the African Antillean and expatriate communities.

There are approximately 850 Rastafarians, most of whom live in Colon City and La Chorrera. Indigenous religions, including Ibeorgun (prevalent among the Guna community), Mama Tata and Mama Chi (prevalent among the Ngobe Bugle community), and Embera (prevalent among the Embera community), are found in their respective indigenous communities located throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, laws, and executive decrees prohibit discrimination based on religious practices and provide for freedom of religion and worship, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected. The constitution recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but does not designate it as the state religion. It limits the public offices that clergy and members of religious orders may hold to those related to social assistance, education, and scientific research. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion.

The constitution grants legal status to religious associations, permitting them to manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law. If groups decline to register, they may not apply for grants or subsidies. To register, a group must submit to the Ministry of Government (MOG) a power of attorney, charter, names of its board members (if applicable), a copy of the internal bylaws (if applicable), and a four-balboa ($4) processing fee. Once the MOG approves the registration, the religious association must record the MOG’s resolution in the Public Registry. Registered religious associations must apply to the Directorate of Internal Revenue of the Ministry of Economy and Finance to receive clearance for duty-free imports. The government may grant government properties to registered religious associations upon approval by the Legislative Tax Committee and the cabinet. The law states income from religious activities is tax exempt as long as it is collected through such activities as church and burial services and charitable events.

Registered religious groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church, Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, the Baha’i Faith, Soka Gakkai International (Buddhist), Muslim Congregation of Colon, Muslim Congregation of Panama City, Muslim Congregation of Cocle Province, Muslim Congregation of Chiriqui Province, Jewish Kol Shearith Israel Congregation, Jewish Shevet Ahim Congregation, Jewish Beth El Congregation, Baptist Church, Church of Jesus Christ, Hossana Evangelical Church, Casa de Oracion (house of prayer) Cristiana Evangelical Church, Pentecostal Church, Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Crossroads Christian Church, and Ministry of the Family Christian Church. The Rastafarian Congregation is not registered.

By law, indigenous tribes have control of their own autonomous lands within the country, which are called comarcas (counties). The oldest one, established in 1938, belongs to the Guna Yala tribe. This autonomy allows them to practice their religions and cultural traditions without interference from the state.

The constitution requires public schools to provide instruction on Catholic teachings. Parents may exempt their children from religious education. The constitution also allows for the establishment of private religious schools. Private religious schools may not refuse to enroll a student simply because they are not a member of that particular religion. Students of a faith separate from their educational institution are allowed to practice their religion freely.

Immigration law grants foreign religious workers temporary missionary worker visas they must renew every two years, for up to a total of six years. Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests and nuns are exempt from the two-year renewal requirement and issued six-year visas because of the constitutional provision allowing all religions to worship freely, with no limitation other than “respect for Christian morality.” Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, as well as other religious workers, are also eligible for the special six-year visa; however, they must submit additional documentation with their applications. These additional requirements include a copy of the organization’s bylaws, the MOG-issued registration certificate, and a letter from the organization’s leader in the country certifying the religious worker will be employed at its place of worship. The application fee is 250 balboas ($250) for all religious denominations.

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

Government Practices

According to government sources, there were no pending religious applications before the Ministry of Government at year’s end. According to Rastafarian representatives, the congregation did not plan to register for legal status; they said the community was small and met informally at individual homes because there were no formal places of worship. Additionally, the Rastafarian community stated it had no plans to import religious articles for distribution, one of the primary reasons why religious organizations applied for legal status.

Catholic schools continued to represent the majority of parochial educational institutions. According to a Ministry of Education official, non-Catholic religious schools received equal consideration regarding government grants, stating the government provided more funds to Catholic schools than other religious schools because there were more of them; however, privately some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of the two-year cycle subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, there were no religious discrimination claims submitted to the government during the year and none pending from previous years. The last complaint of religious discrimination received by the Ombudsman’s Office was filed in 2017 by a Rastafarian youth who was not allowed to enter a public school due to his braids. The Ombudsman’s Office reached out to the school principal, and the student was allowed to re-enter his school, thereby resolving the situation.

In January the country hosted World Youth Day in conjunction with the Vatican. Although the lead organizer was the local Catholic Church, the government provided logistical and security support for the event, which attracted approximately 250,000 foreign visitors. Non-Catholic groups said the government’s logistical and financial support for World Youth Day represented government preference for the Catholic Church. Some social media commentators also said the government showed religious bias because it used public monies to fund a Catholic event. According to an official government expense report, the previous administration spent 44 million balboas ($44 million) to fund World Youth Day.

The government continued to invite primarily Catholic clergy to conduct religious invocations at government events, including the opening of the National Assembly. Many official celebrations included the participation of high-ranking clergy of many religions at Catholic masses, including the Te Deum on November 3, which featured clergy of all member groups of the Interreligious Institute of Panama, with the president attending and in commemoration of the country’s 116th year of independence. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in senior positions in the government, including as ambassadors.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interreligious Institute of Panama, an interfaith committee made up of representatives of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and other Protestant Churches, Salvation Army, Colon Islamic Congregation, the Baha’i Faith, and Kol Shearith Jewish Congregation, continued to meet several times during the year. Early in the year the institute extended an invitation to the Buddhist Soka Gakkai Congregation to join the group, which the congregation accepted. The institute’s objectives included providing a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promoting mutual respect and appreciation among the various religious groups.

In July the Jewish “Conciencia Viva” (Live Consciousness) movement organized an interfaith event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of an Alas Chiricanas flight in which 20 persons lost their lives, the majority of them members of the country’s Jewish community. The two presidents, current President Laurentino Cortizo and former president Juan Carlos Varela, attended along with many others, including Catholic and Muslim clergy.

The Interreligious Institute reported persons of Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish, and non-Catholic Christian faiths hosted World Youth Day participants. Young Catholics from throughout the world attended, and a wide variety of religious organizations hosted participants in their homes and at their institutions’ facilities. Muslim groups in Colon District, Panama City, hosted dinners for Youth Day participants and donated water during the event. The Kol Shearith Jewish congregation hosted Catholic youth in their synagogue, and the Islamic community put up banners welcoming Pope Francis. Clergy representing all of the major religious groups joined the pope for an interfaith Mass. Several religious leaders said they spent a large amount of their budgets and resources on World Youth Day, leaving fewer resources to host other interreligious events for the rest of the year.

On April 30, an interreligious service was held to pray for peace in advance of the country’s May 5 general election. Representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths attended the service, the first interfaith event held in support of a peaceful electoral process.

On June 25, religious leaders from multiple faiths signed the Cordoba Declaration, which recognizes Latin America and the Caribbean as a “Zone of Religious Coexistence.” Those signing the declaration included leaders of the Muslim community, the Jewish community of Kol Shearith, the Buddhist community of Soka Gokkai, as well as the leader of the Baha’i community and the Catholic Archbishop of Panama. According to a document issued by the Religions for Peace (Religiones por la Paz), an international interfaith group founded in Germany in 1970, the Cordoba Declaration was the starting point for the creation and deepening of programs and projects that promote Latin American and Caribbean interreligious coexistence.

On October 29, the USMA hosted an international symposium on religious freedom, humanitarian assistance, and human dignity, jointly with Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Invited speakers came from the United States and other Latin American countries and featured Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim panelists. According to conference participants, they discussed how different religions approached religious freedom and humanitarian assistance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with officials of the Ministry of Education and the Ombudsman’s Office to discuss government policies regarding the equal treatment of all religious groups and individuals, including those belonging to religious minorities. They also inquired if there were any pending religious discrimination claims submitted to the government, including any regarding unfairness reported by some religious minority groups in government allocation of education subsidies for religious schools.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met several times with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Rastafarian, Baha’i, Episcopalian, Lutheran, other Protestant, and evangelical Protestant leaders, religious groups, and community organizations. They discussed religious freedom issues, including government treatment of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions.

The embassy used social media channels periodically throughout the year to commemorate holidays of various religions and recognize International Religious Freedom Day in October.

Paraguay

Executive Summary

The constitution accords individuals the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion and prohibits religious discrimination. It specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religions freely. The constitution states the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on independence, cooperation, and autonomy. The Vice Ministry of Worship (VMW) extended until the end of the year a grace period for all religious and philosophical groups to complete the mandatory registration process and did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on groups that had not registered. In August authorities granted final approval of the application of the Catholic Christian Apostolic National Church of Paraguay (ICCAN) as a legal entity. According to ICCAN representatives, ICCAN applied for nonprofit organization (NPO) status in September. Following government approval of its NPO status, ICAAN resubmitted its registration request to the VMW, as required after the government approved its legal status. During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported two cases of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving a hospital blood transfusion against their will; in one of the cases, the Supreme Court ruled the right to life prevailed over the patient’s right to autonomy.

In May the VMW hosted the first Paraguayan-Argentine Interreligious Regional Symposium in the city of Encarnacion, in which Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Muslims participated. According to the VMW, the symposium aimed to communicate each country’s commitment to religious diversity and foster respect for multiculturalism through interreligious dialogue. Roman Catholic, Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Jewish representatives stated they regularly participated in various interreligious dialogues. In July, under the auspices of the Permanent Forum of Interreligious Dialogue, Baha’i, Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities signed a statement declaring the country an interreligious coexistence zone. The signatories said the statement would serve as an instrument to create and strengthen projects that promote interreligious coexistence based on the respect and acceptance of multiculturalism and diversity of ideas and beliefs.

U.S. embassy officials met with Director General Marco Mendez of the VMW and discussed ICCAN’s registration status, government actions to facilitate the registration process, the promotion of religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, whether any religious discrimination claims had been filed during the year, and the provision of state funding for schools run by religious groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Mennonite, Church of Jesus Christ, Muslim, ICCAN, and Jewish communities to discuss interfaith respect for religious diversity and hear their views on the status of religious freedom in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). A 2014 Latinobarometro report estimated 88 percent is Roman Catholic; a 2018 Vatican report estimated 89 percent is Roman Catholic and 6 percent evangelical Protestant. The Association of Evangelical Ministers of Paraguay estimates that 9.6 percent of the population is evangelical Protestant. Groups that together constitute between 1 and 4 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Church of Jesus Christ, Muslims, Buddhists, Mennonites, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and adherents of indigenous tribal beliefs.

Members of the Mennonite Church, who Church leaders estimate to number 46,000, are prominent in the remote areas of the central Chaco and some eastern regions of the country. ICCAN estimates its membership at more than 100,000. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates 70,000 members. According to Muslim leaders, there are approximately 10,000 Muslims, with the majority in Ciudad del Este. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate the group’s membership at 10,950. According to representatives of the Jewish community, there are approximately 1,000 Jews living primarily in Asuncion.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides individuals, including members of indigenous communities, the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely.

According to the constitution, the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on “independence, cooperation, and autonomy.” The Roman Catholic Church, however, must comply with all regulations the state imposes on other churches and non-Christian religious groups. The law allows political parties based on a specific faith, but the constitution prohibits active members of the clergy from any religious group from running for public office.

The law requires all religious and philosophical groups to register with the VMW and submit annual reports stating the organization’s key leadership and functions. Organizations must complete a form containing 14 items and provide supporting documents to the VMW to register. The form requests basic information, including entity name, mission or vision, history in the country, church or temple addresses, membership size, and types of activities. The VMW also requires the certification of a legal representative and the entity’s bylaws as supporting documentation for registration. Once registered, religious and philosophical groups must update their registration on an annual basis and pay an annual fee of 62,000 guaranies (Gs) ($10).

The VMW may apply nonmonetary administrative sanctions against organizations that fail to register, including ordering the suspension of religious services. The National Anti-Money Laundering Secretariat requires that all religious organizations register as nonfinancial agents. Religious groups must demonstrate legal status as a nonprofit organization and agree to annual recertification. Annual recertification requires groups resubmit the registration form with updated information. Religious leaders must submit to financial and criminal background checks.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. The constitution provides private schools the right to offer religious education; staff teaching these courses are required to be of merit and possess ethical integrity. Registration for private religious schools is not mandatory, but the Ministry of Education and Culture recognizes only diplomas and degrees granted by registered institutions. Additionally, only registered schools with nonprofit status may receive subsidies for teachers’ salaries. Students of religious groups other than the one associated with a private religious school may enroll; however, all students are expected to participate in the religious activities that are a mandatory part of the schedule.

The constitution and laws provide for conscientious objection to military service based on religious beliefs.

Foreign missionaries who are members of registered religious groups are eligible for no-cost residency visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They must also register annually with the VMW to receive official documentation identifying their status as missionaries. Missionaries choosing not to register may enter the country on tourist visas. A law provides for Mennonites to implement their own education programs and exempts them from military service.

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

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported four pending cases of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving a hospital blood transfusion against their will, two filed during the year and one each filed in 2018 and 2017. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association opposed the measures and filed suits against the hospitals. During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association won one case against the Social Security Institute Hospital in the Court of Second Instance; however, the hospital appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In August the court ruled that the right to life prevailed over the patient’s right to autonomy. An individual Jehovah’s Witness sued the Police Hospital in August. In August the Court of the Second Instance ruled in favor of the Police Hospital. The third case was filed in 2018 and was awaiting a first ruling at year’s end. In the fourth case, filed in 2017, the court of first instance ruled in favor of the Clinic Hospital, and in March the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association appealed to the Court of Second Instance.

The VMW extended until the end of the year a grace period for all religious and philosophical groups to complete the mandatory registration process and did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on groups that had not registered. The ministry stated, however, that although the law required full compliance by the end of the year, it was focusing on raising public awareness of the registration law and had not set a date for enforcing compliance. The VMW stated it was implementing the registration law consistently across religious groups; once it received all required information and documents from a religious group, it would complete the process in 15 days.

According to the VMW, 530 religious groups had active registrations with the government, compared with 536 in 2018. Thirty-five new groups registered during the year, while 41 groups did not renew their registration.

According to the VMW, approximately 15 percent of religious groups were registered. VMW officials said the high cost associated with obtaining a legal representative, which requires hiring a lawyer costing between Gs 3,000,000 and Gs 15,000,000 ($470 to $2,300), likely was a major barrier to registration. Another barrier was the requirement that entities travel to Asuncion to submit their documentation. The VMW said it was working with the Ministry of Interior to regulate lawyers’ fees and planned on implementing an online registration process by mid-2020.

In August authorities granted final approval of ICCAN’s application as a legal entity, a pre-requirement for a religious group to apply for NPO status and ultimately, formal registration. According to ICCAN representatives, ICCAN applied for NPO status in September. Following government approval of its NPO status, ICCAN representatives resubmitted its registration request to the VMW as required when the government approved its legal status. ICCAN representatives said they were concerned the Roman Catholic Church in the country would obstruct its registration with the VMW because the Roman Catholic Church leadership stated it had exclusive use of the word “Catholic” in a church title. ICCAN representatives said the Roman Catholic Church’s influence also helped it secure more subsidies for Catholic schools than other religious schools received. The VMW, however, provided information stating the Ministry of Education provided subsidies to 494 schools during the year, of which 252 were Roman Catholic and 242 were of various religious beliefs; the ministry also provided subsidies to nonreligious schools. Roman Catholic Church representatives expressed concerns that ICCAN’s use of the world “Catholic” in its title would lead the public to believe the ICCAN was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, even though the Roman Catholic Church did not recognize ICCAN as a valid Catholic church. The VMW stated ICCAN’s title could still be an issue for completing its registration process. ICCAN representatives said the government continued not to recognize their claim to land and property they said the Catholic Church had taken from them in 1840. According to religious group representatives, the Roman Catholic Church’s reservations about ICCAN’s validity was not representative of the views of the VMW or other religious communities, which said they respected ICCAN’s right to exist.

The VMW stated it did not receive cases of religious discrimination during the year.

The Ministry of Education and Culture continued to subsidize the salaries of hundreds of teachers in registered, nonprofit schools operated by predominantly Roman Catholic religious groups. According to representatives of the Mennonite community, the government had started to provide subsidies to their schools during the year; Jewish community members said they did not request government subsidies. According to a ministry representative, the ministry maintained an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church governing the allocation of subsidies to schools in areas not served by public schools. The representative also stated that a separate agreement set very similar regulations for subsidy allocation to other religious schools located in underserved areas serving vulnerable student populations and providing educational or scholarship services to vulnerable students. Mennonite schools in Boqueron Department continued an ad hoc consultation process with departmental authorities.

The VMW reported that 353 foreign missionaries registered or reregistered by year’s end, compared with 309 in 2018 – most of them members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The government continued to support chaplaincy programs open to all religious groups in the armed forces. The programs included the training of clergy to provide services to members of the armed forces deployed either in combat zones or on peacekeeping missions. The government also continued to allow religious groups to operate in and provide the services of different religions within prisons for adults and youth; however, during the year only Christian groups made use of this option.

In May the VMW hosted the first Paraguayan-Argentine Interreligious Regional Symposium in which representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim, and evangelical Protestant communities participated. The symposium, held in the city of Encarnacion in the southern part of the country, highlighted each country’s commitment to peaceful religious coexistence and the importance of interreligious dialogue to encourage respect for religious and multicultural diversity. Through the symposium, communities committed to promote interreligious dialogue, schedule meetings, and collaborate with the government and international organizations to develop respect for diversity. The symposium also helped identify areas for collaboration as well as share statistical information on members of each faith.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers, including from nongovernmental organizations, political pundits, and the press, stated the Roman Catholic Church continued to maintain an influential role within society and government that gave it an advantage over other religious groups in the country. According to media reports, because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, both citizens and the government valued the opinion of the Roman Catholic Church on political matters. On May 15, the Roman Catholic Church hosted a Te Deum to honor the country’s independence in which President Mario Abdo Benitez, other members of the government, and individuals from other religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jews, and evangelical Protestants, participated. On December 8, President Benitez participated in the ceremony of a local Christian holiday, “Virgen de Caacupe,” in which a priest’s homily asked the president to defend the country’s national interests in upcoming negotiations with Brazil on the Itaipu Treaty.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office continued to investigate a formal complaint filed by the Public Ministry’s Ethnic Rights Office in 2018 concerning a video posted online showing an evangelical Protestant pastor exorcising an elderly indigenous religious leader in the Mbya indigenous community of Caaguazu Department. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, rather than the VMW, investigated the case because the indigenous religious leader said the pastor had also stolen items from him. According to media reports, the pastor belonged to the Pentecostal Church Prince of Peace, an unregistered church.

Representatives of the local Jewish community said they continued to monitor a group, formerly called Paraguay Nacional Socialista (PNS), that actively espoused Nazi and xenophobic ideology in 2016-2017 but had since either disappeared or gone underground. According to Facebook, the PNS changed its name to Identidad Nacional (IN) in 2018 and shifted to nationalist rhetoric. According to members of the Jewish community, IN did not attack any individuals or publish anti-Semitic statements during the year. Its rhetoric targeted Brazilian landowners in rural areas of the country rather than Jews, and the IN organized small rallies in the countryside. The head of the Jewish community said he believed the PNS continued to operate underground, and that therefore the Jewish community continued to monitor the group closely. Jewish community members said they had confidence in the security forces and the private security companies the community hired to protect places of worship, schools, and community centers.

In October the Church of Jesus Christ completed renovation of its main temple in Asuncion and opened it for public visits. A Church representative said Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Baha’i community representatives coordinated a joint visit to the temple.

A Permanent Forum of Interreligious Dialogue organized by the Baha’i community worked to promote shared common values, including religious tolerance, to benefit society. In July the forum brought together Baha’i, Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities in Asuncion where they signed an agreement declaring the country an interreligious coexistence zone. The statement also served as an instrument to create and strengthen projects promoting interreligious coexistence based on the respect and acceptance of multiculturalism and diversity of ideas and beliefs.

Christian and Jewish groups continued holding interreligious dialogues among religious group representatives. The Roman Catholic Church hosted a dialogue in May that included Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and evangelical Protestant participants.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with Director General Mendez of the VMW to discuss issues related to ICCAN’s registration process, government actions to facilitate the registration of other religious groups, the promotion of religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, whether any religious discrimination claims were filed during the year, and the provision of state funding for salaries at schools run by religious groups.

Embassy officials met with Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Catholic Christian Apostolic, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ, and Jewish leaders to discuss religious freedom and the government’s attitude towards their communities.

Peru

Executive Summary

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. Small non-Catholic religious groups said they were pleased with the 2018 temporary removal of the prerequisite to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to receive certain tax and visa benefits and other government services. Some members of religious minorities, however, continued to state the religious freedom law maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions, and they sought a permanent change in government policy to allow exemptions for all religious groups. 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. In June the MOJ hosted a panel of experts on religious liberty and the principles of secularism and the neutrality of the state. Panelists of the Pontifical Catholic University analyzed and explained a December 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that government financing for schools run by religious groups was unconstitutional because it was incompatible with the principle of secularism. Some members of the Catholic Church questioned the ruling, stating secularism was not mentioned in the constitution. In January Junin Department Governor Vladimir Cerron tweeted, “If the Left coordinates its unity well, it will successfully face the Jewish-Peruvian powers in the next general elections,” in reference to Cerron’s alleging Jewish control of the country’s politics and economy. Political figures and media criticized Cerron’s statement as anti-Semitic.

Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel. Both Jewish and Muslim leaders again said some public and private schools and employers did not give their members annual vacation leave for religious holidays. Religious groups and interfaith organizations coordinated with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 860,000 displaced Venezuelans in the country.

U.S. embassy officials continued to discuss the religious freedom law, including tax exemptions for religious groups, and its 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 displaced Venezuelans in the country. Embassy officials also promoted tolerance and respect for religious diversity with leaders from the Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 31.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). 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 (who define themselves as evangelical Protestant), Baha’is, Buddhists, Orthodox Christians (primarily Russian and Greek), and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

According to the World Jewish Congress, approximately 3,000 Jews reside in the country, primarily in Lima, Cusco, and Iquitos. According to the Islamic Association of Peru, there are approximately 2,600 Muslims, 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

Legal Framework

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 concordat between the government and the Holy See accords the Catholic Church certain institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers. A 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. In December 2018 a temporary exemption of these taxes was approved for non-Catholic religious groups, valid until December 31, 2020. By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.

The MOJ is responsible for engaging with religious groups.

Registration with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom is optional and voluntary. The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government. Religious groups do not have to register to obtain institutional benefits but doing so allows them to engage with the government. The regulations 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 helps 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 all schools, public and private, to 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. According to a December 2018 Constitutional Court ruling, government financing for schools run by religious groups is unconstitutional because it is “incompatible with the principle of secularism.” The ruling provides the state must suspend funding for these schools within a reasonable period or establish a general and secular system of subsidies for all private educational institutions regardless of their religious affiliation.

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.

Government Practices

At year’s end, the government had registered 148 non-Catholic groups, an increase from 133 in 2018. 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. The government ended minimum membership requirements in 2018, allowing any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization.

According to the Interreligious Council and faith groups, the MOJ continued to engage religious communities on matters affecting the communities, including the registration process, tax exemptions, religious worker visas, budgetary support for religious groups, and prisoners’ rights to religious practice. The MOJ continued to interact regularly with the religious groups through its Office of Catholic Affairs and the Office of Interfaith Affairs for non-Catholic Religious Groups.

Some members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the country’s 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 permanent 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.

According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government provided an annual grant of approximately 2.6 million soles ($785,000) to the Catholic Church for stipends to archbishops and pastors, in accordance with the 1980 concordat with the Holy See. Each of the 45 Catholic ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the country also received a monthly subsidy of 1,000 soles ($300) for maintenance and repairs of church buildings, often of significant historical and cultural value. Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received subsidies from the government in addition to these funds. These individuals represented approximately 8 percent of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents. 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 again stated that 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.

In January Junin Department Governor Cerron tweeted, “If the Left coordinates its unity well, it will successfully face the Jewish-Peruvian powers in the next general elections,” in reference to Cerron’s alleging Jewish control of the country’s politics and economy. In February, two months before dying by suicide, former president Alan Garcia said a journalist who accused him of stopping the fight against corruption had “brought the Jewish mafia of (Josef) Maiman” (an Israeli-Peruvian real estate developer allegedly involved with corruption) to the country. Some political leaders, including then congressman Alberto de Belaunde, who called anti-Semitism “unacceptable,” and media reports criticized the remarks by Cerron and Garcia as anti-Semitic. The Jewish Association of Peru characterized Garcia’s comments as discriminatory and stated they could not accept “expressions that feed conspiracy ideas that have nothing to do with reality.” In response, Garcia said his comments were a lapse due to the speed of the interview.

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, cohosted these engagements for the entire community.

In June MOJ officials, including Vice Minister Fernando Castaneda and Director for Interfaith Affairs Maria Esperanza Adrianzen, and various religious representatives from Latin America and the Caribbean associated with the international organization Religions for Peace held an interreligious regional consultation in Lima to promote social development and interfaith dialogue. The consultation focused on an interfaith vision for peace, tolerance, conflict prevention, promotion of sustainable development, and environmental protection. It also included a special session on the role of religious communities in response to the Venezuelan migration crisis in the region. At the event, President Martin Vizcarra received Religions for Peace’s award for “Positive Peace.”

In June the MOJ hosted an expert panel on religious liberty and the principles of secularism and the neutrality of the state, specifically analyzing and explaining the Constitutional Court’s December 2018 ruling regarding public financing for private religious schools. Some members of the Catholic Church criticized the ruling, stating that secularism was not mentioned in the constitution, while it recognized the Church’s important role in the country’s history and culture. The government continued to work on an implementation timeline for the 2018 ruling through year’s end.

In March the minister of women and vulnerable populations addressed a conference organized by the Interreligious Council focused on combating violence against women. The minister noted the leading role of faith communities in fostering democratic, healthy, and respectful spaces where equality between men and women can be promoted. In October the MOJ invited religious leaders in the city of Chimbote to participate in an initiative called “Caravan of Justice” to develop an agenda promoting tolerance, solidarity, and social welfare as a joint objective of both the state and religious communities.

The Peruvian Falun Dafa Association stated that as a result of Chinese embassy interference, the Falun Gongaffiliated performance troupe Shen Yun was unable to reserve public venues through the Ministry of Culture for their commercial performances. The association said because Shen Yun could not secure appropriately sized venues, it did not perform during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interreligious Council continued to promote just and harmonious societies within a framework of respect, tolerance, and dialogue between different faith traditions. It 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, whose members in November attended the inauguration of the Church of Jesus Christ Temple in Arequipa. The council continued to engage religious communities on the government’s revised religious freedom regulations, the protection of religious freedom, and assistance to displaced Venezuelans.

Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media, particularly in reaction to statements made by former governor Vladimir Cerron and former president Alan Garcia. In media, most responses condemned Cerron’s and Garcia’s statements and postings. A few individuals, however, posted social media comments, such as “his (Cerron’s) were not an assault against Jews, just a critique of their political and economic power.”

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, including Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.

Religious groups and interfaith organizations continued to coordinate with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance, regardless of their religious affiliation, to more than 860,000 displaced Venezuelans entering the country since 2015. Various evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches in Tumbes continued to work with the government, the International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide temporary housing to the increasing number of Venezuelan migrants entering through the northern border. In April members of the Interreligious Council met with UNHCR representatives to coordinate UNHCR’s responses to this crisis, particularly with respect to shelter, health, education, and providing advice on migration status.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials again encouraged the government to apply impartially the religious freedom law and its implementing regulations to all religious groups. Embassy officials discussed implementation of the revised regulations with MOJ 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 engaged both government and civil society participants on religious freedom topics, including during an interfaith gathering in April focused on religious freedom and tolerance at the Church of Jesus Christ temple in Lima.

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Interreligious Council, academics, Catholic Church, Protestant and evangelical Protestant groups, Church of Jesus Christ, and 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 Venezuelan migrants in the country.

Suriname

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion; both the constitution and the penal code prohibit discrimination based on religion. Any violation may be brought before a court of justice. Religious groups seeking financial support from the government must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Limited government financial support for religious groups remained available through the Ministry of Home Affairs, primarily as a stipend for clergy. The government continued to pay wages for teachers of schools managed by religious organizations; however, according to the Federation of Religious Schools in Suriname (FIBOS), other subsidies designated to FIBOS for operational expenses of these schools were either late or not paid. FIBOS reported the government was also late in its payment of subsidies to children’s and elderly homes run by religious organizations. The Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported interfaith week held annually in February.

The Inter-Religious Council (IRIS) – an organization encompassing two Hindu and two Muslim groups, the Jewish community, and the Catholic Church – continued to discuss interfaith activities and positions on government policies and their impact on society. IRIS collaborated with nonmember religious organizations on efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance.

In meetings with host government representatives, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight U.S. government policy on the importance of protecting religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador hosted a roundtable event in June that focused on religious tolerance. Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian communities to encourage tolerance and discuss promotion within their communities of respect for religious diversity. In an effort to better promote U.S. policy and messaging on religious freedom, the embassy distributed information on the Department of State Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to religious organizations and government officials with responsibility for religious affairs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 604,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2012 census, the most recent available, approximately half of the population is Christian (26 percent Protestant, 22 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent other Christian). Christian groups include Moravian, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, evangelical Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hindus are 22 percent of the population, including the Sanatan Dharm and the Arya Dewaker. Muslims, including Sunni and Ahmadi Muslims and the World Islamic Call Society, are 14 percent. The remaining 13 percent includes Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, Brahma Kumaris, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and three Rastafarian organizations: the Aya Bingi Order, 12th Tribe, and Bobo Shanti.

Some Amerindian and Maroon populations, approximately 3 percent of the population, adhere to indigenous religions. Certain Amerindian groups, concentrated principally in the interior and to a lesser extent in coastal areas, practice shamanism through a medicine man (piaiman). Many Maroons, descendants of Africans who fled Dutch colonial plantations, worship nature. Those of Amerindian and Maroon origin who identify as Christian often combine Christian practices with indigenous religious customs. Some Creoles in urban areas, as well as some Maroons, worship their ancestors through a rite called wintie.

There is some correlation between ethnicity and religion. The Hindustani-speaking population is primarily Hindu, while some ethnic Indians, Javanese, and Creoles practice Islam. Christianity crosses all ethnic backgrounds.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of religion, and individuals may not be discriminated against on the grounds of religion. Individuals may choose to change their religion. Any violation of religious freedom may be brought before a court of justice.

The penal code provides punishment for those who instigate hate or discrimination against persons based on religion or creed in any way; however, the law has not been enforced. Those found guilty may be sentenced to a prison term of no longer than one year and a fine of up to 25,000 Surinamese dollars (SRD) ($3,300). In cases where an insult or act of hatred is instigated by more than one person, as part of an organization, or by a person who makes such statements habitually or as part of work, the punishment may include imprisonment of up to two years and fines of up to SRD 50,000 ($6,600).

Religious groups must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs only if they seek financial support, including stipends for clergy, from the government. To register, religious groups must supply contact information, a history of their group, and addresses for houses of worship. Most religious groups are officially registered.

The law does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools managed by religious groups include religious instruction in the curriculum. All students attending schools run by religious groups must take part in religious instruction, regardless of their religious background. Parents are not permitted to homeschool children for religious reasons.

The government funds salaries for all teachers in primary and junior secondary schools established and managed by various religious groups and provides a stipend that partially covers maintenance costs for these institutions. Religious groups must provide the remaining funding, which includes construction costs, funding for school furniture, supplies, and additional maintenance expenses. Religious organizations manage approximately 50 percent of primary (ages 4-12) and junior secondary (ages 12-16) schools in the country. Religious organizations do not manage higher secondary schools (ages 16-19). The Catholic diocese, Moravian Church, and Hindu community manage the majority of private schools. Through the Ministries of Education and Finance, the government provides a fee per registered child and pays teacher salaries to the religious organizations managing these schools.

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

Government Practices

According to FIBOS, the government continued to pay wages for teachers of schools managed by religious organizations; however, its other subsidies for operational expenses of these schools were either late or not paid. In September the government and FIBOS reached an agreement on payment of subsidies for attending students. Parties agreed the government would pay the school fees for the 2019-2020 school year. According to FIBOS, the government was also late in its payment of subsidies to children’s and elderly homes run by religious organizations. FIBOS attributed these delays to the government’s budget shortfall.

Government officials continued to raise the importance of religious freedom, respect for religious diversity, and its commitment to protecting religious minorities at the highest levels. President Desire Delano Bouterse underscored the country’s “rich diversity” in his September 30 budget speech, as well as the importance for different groups to uphold principles of “unity, peace, and tolerance” with each other.

All schools, including public schools, continued to recognize various religious holidays that are also national holidays, including Christmas, Easter, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, and Phagwa. The government continued to prohibit prayer groups in public schools.

The armed forces continued to maintain a staff chaplaincy with Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic clergy available to military personnel.

Vice President Ashwin Adhin attended several religious events on behalf of the government throughout the year.

Minister of Home Affairs Mike Noersalim again issued statements on behalf of the government in honor of World Prayer Day in March and throughout the year ahead of different religious holidays such as Phagwa, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Christmas. The statements emphasized the importance of religious harmony for a prosperous society. In the lead-up to Phagwa, Noersalim stated, “We are blessed in Suriname with a rich religious diversity, a wealth from which we can all draw, at any time. And we must cherish this social capital and make it flourish. If we want to leave a good world for our posterity, then we will have to see the sustainability of our religious diversity as a duty.”

The Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Home Affairs supported Interfaith Week held annually in February.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

IRIS members met monthly to discuss interfaith activities as well as the impact of different government policies on society. IRIS also collaborated with other nonmember religious organizations on efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance. In February several religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, and Buddhists, organized an annual Interfaith Week throughout the country during which tolerance and dialogue were the main themes. According to IRIS, the activities were in support of the UN’s World Interfaith Harmony Week.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to highlight U.S. government policy concerning the importance of protection of religious freedom in meetings with government officials.

In June the Ambassador hosted a religious roundtable event that focused on religious tolerance. Participants included a monsignor representing the Catholic Diocese of Parimaribo, the bishop of the Moravian Church, the head of the Lutheran Church, the chair of the Suriname Islamic Foundation, representatives from Arya Dewaker and Sanatan Dharm, a representative from the synagogue, and the deputy director for religious affairs of the Ministry of Home Affairs. In addition to religious freedom, participants also discussed the role religious organizations could play in addressing issues of national concern, including human trafficking, democracy, the 2020 parliamentary elections, and environmental issues.

In an effort to better promote U.S. policy and messaging on religious freedom, the embassy distributed information on the Department of State Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to religious organizations and government officials with responsibility germane to religion.

Uruguay

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and affirms the state does not support any particular religion. Legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on religion. In August media quoted Human Rights Secretary for the Presidential Office Nelson Villarreal stating his concerns about the increasing participation of evangelical Protestants in politics. Evangelical Protestant pastors and other members of several evangelical Protestant churches said they disapproved of the secretary’s remarks, which they stated incited discrimination and hatred. The pastors said they requested the secretary retract his statements and asked then president Tabare Vazquez to take corrective measures against the secretary. In May a number of evangelical Protestant organizations, including Mision Vida para las Naciones Church (Life Mission for the Nations), filed a petition before the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for discrimination by the state based on religious grounds; the commission continued to review the petition through year’s end. The government’s official commitment to secularism continued to generate controversy between religious groups and political leaders. Religious organizations continued to underline the need for more channels of communication and opportunities for dialogue with the government to discuss issues related to religious freedom. In September a court upheld the desire expressed in the living will of a comatose Jehovah’s Witness not to receive a blood transfusion because it contravened her religious beliefs. In July the Canelones Department government transferred land to the Islamic community to build its first cemetery in the country. Members of the Jewish community said the government should issue regulations to allow alternate university-level exam dates for students observing religious holidays, instead of leaving the decision to individual professors. The government supported several events commemorating the Holocaust, including one held in parliament, and broadcast a national message reaffirming the country’s commitment to the defense of human rights and its condemnation of any act of terrorism and intolerance.

According to media, on March 8, protesters vandalized a Roman Catholic Church, stating their disagreement regarding the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and birth control. Religious representatives continued to report press and social media commentary disparaging their religious beliefs and practices. Interfaith groups continued to promote interfaith dialogue, understanding, and coexistence in the country. In May the Catholic Church organized an event commemorating 100 years of the separation of church and state. The Zionist Organization of Uruguay presented the 2019 Jerusalem Prize to Cardinal Daniel Sturla, Archbishop of Montevideo. The annual prize recognizes a prominent national figure, typically a representative from government or academia, for promoting and defending the human rights of Jews and encouraging peaceful coexistence among persons of different beliefs.

U.S. Embassy officials discussed issues regarding religious freedom and discrimination with representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Commission against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination (CHRXD), and the National Human Rights Institute (INDDHH). Embassy officials met with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, other minority religious groups, and the Board for Interfaith Dialogue to discuss interfaith collaboration and hear their concerns about challenges to religious freedom and tolerance. In November embassy staff coorganized a workshop on religious freedom convened by the Catholic University, with representatives of different religions, including minority religious groups. The embassy continued to use social media to highlight the importance of respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.4 million (2019 midyear estimate). According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 57 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian (42 percent Catholic and 15 percent Protestant), 37 percent as religious but unaffiliated, and 6 percent as other. Minority groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Valdense Church, Afro-Umbandists (who blend elements of Catholicism with animism and African and indigenous beliefs), Buddhists, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Brahma Kumaris, and others. According to the survey, 0.3 percent of the population is Jewish, 0.1 percent Hindu, and 0.1 percent Muslim. Other estimates of the country’s Jewish population range from 12,000 to 30,000, according to the Jewish Studies department of ORT University and the National Israel Council. Civil society experts estimate there are between 700 and 1,500 Muslims, mostly living near the border with Brazil.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states, “The state does not support any particular religion.” The penal code prohibits discrimination based on religion.

A 2017 law calls for the annual commemoration of secularism in the country, held on March 19 since 2018.

The constitution accords the Catholic Church the right to ownership of all its churches built wholly or partly with previous state funding, with the exception of chapels dedicated for use as asylums, hospitals, prisons, or other public establishments.

Religious groups are entitled to property tax exemptions only for their houses of worship. To receive such exemptions, a religious group must register as a nonprofit organization with the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) and present a dossier with the organization’s structure and objectives. The ministry examines the dossier and determines if the religious group is eligible to receive a tax exemption. The ministry routinely registers groups submitting the required paperwork. If approved, the group may request a property tax exemption from the taxing authority, usually the local government.

Each local government regulates the use of its public land for burials. Many departments (equivalent to states) allow burials, services, and rites of all religions in their public cemeteries. Public health regulations, however, require burial in a coffin.

The INDDHH, an autonomous branch of parliament, and the MEC’s CHRXD enforce government compliance with antidiscrimination laws. Both organizations receive complaints of discrimination, conduct investigations, and issue rulings on whether discrimination occurred. These rulings include a recommendation on whether cases should receive a judicial or administrative hearing. Only the courts or the Ministry of Labor may sanction or fine for discrimination. The INDDHH and the CHRXD provide free legal services to complainants.

A correctional authority protocol regulates religious issues in prisons, including standardizing access for religious officials and religious meeting spaces. Several prisons in the country have a dedicated space for religious practices.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Public schools close on some Christian holidays. In deference to its secular nature, the government does not refer to holidays by their Christian names; for example, Christmas is formally referred to as “Family Day” and Holy Week is widely referred to as “Tourism Week.” Students belonging to non-Christian or minority religious groups may be absent from school on their religious holidays without penalty. Private schools run by religious organizations may decide which religious holidays to observe.

For religious workers to work in the country, they must provide certification from their church to confirm the identity of the applicant and to guarantee financial support. According to regulations, the state must enforce these standards equitably across all religious groups.

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

Government Practices

The government’s official commitment to secularism and how it impacted religious groups continued to generate controversy between religious groups and political leaders. Differing interpretations of the term “secularism” continued to lead to disagreements on the state’s role in enforcing the country’s secularism laws. Several representatives of religious groups said government authorities often interpreted secularism as the absence of religion, rather than the coexistence of multiple religions or beliefs and the independence of religion from the state.

In August media reported Human Rights Secretary for the Presidential Office Villareal said he was “concerned about the increasing participation of members of evangelical churches in politics.” Pastors and members of several evangelical Protestant churches said the secretary must retract his remarks. Regarding the same issue, a group of evangelical Protestant churches published an open letter to the secretary, accusing him of discrimination and demanding he retract his remarks. They also wrote to then president Vazquez, requesting corrective action. An evangelical Protestant congressman of the National Party, Alvaro Dastugue, said to the press that the secretary’s comments incited hate. The secretary did not retract his comments, and then president Vazquez did not respond to the letter. In May, based on what they said were discriminatory incidents, including negative statements made in 2018 by government officials about evangelical churches, a number of evangelical organizations, among them Mision Vida para las Naciones Church, filed a petition before the IACHR, stating discrimination by the state based on religious grounds. The IACHR continued to review the petition through year’s end.

In September a court ruled against giving a blood transfusion to a Jehovah’s Witness in a coma. The woman stated in her living will she did not want to receive treatments of this kind because of her religious beliefs. The medical institution caring for her respected the patient’s request, but her relatives took the matter to the courts, requesting a judicial order for the medical institution to apply life-saving treatments.

In July the Canelones Department government formally transferred land to the Egyptian Center of Islamic Culture, enabling the center to build an Islamic cemetery. In 2018, responding to a request from the Muslim community, the Canelones government agreed to establish the country’s first Islamic cemetery, with a total area of 27,000 square feet, to be located next to the public Soca Cemetery. According to media, the Canelones Department government also needed to revise public health regulations to allow Muslim burials without a coffin.

Representatives of the Muslim community reported that in public primary schools providing meals to children, meals respecting religious-based food restrictions were rarely made available.

Members of the Jewish community said the government should issue regulations to allow alternate university-level exam dates for students observing religious holidays instead of leaving the decision to individual professors.

Through June the CHRXD received two complaints related to discrimination based on religion. It received five complaints in 2018. The CHRXD did not provide details on the source or specific type of discrimination. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs managed the System for the Monitoring of Recommendations, an interagency, computer-based tool to monitor and report on human rights issues, including discrimination based on religion.

Some members of Catholic and evangelical Protestant groups said government approaches to sex education, gender, and abortion, as taught in public schools, threatened their freedom of speech and the right to practice their religion. According to some religious groups, government agencies, including CHRXD and INDDHH, did not prioritize discrimination based on religion, focusing instead on what the government considered other more “pressing” human rights concerns, such as the rights of persons with disabilities, Afro-descendants, the LGBT community, women, incarcerated persons, and human rights violations committed by the state during the military dictatorship.

The government continued to organize workshops throughout the year to raise awareness of societal discrimination and promote tolerance. During annual Diversity Month observances in September, the government reiterated its commitment to strengthening antidiscrimination policies and promoting tolerance.

Religious organizations said they continued to welcome opportunities for direct dialogue with the government on religious freedom but said there were few or no formal channels of communication with the government to raise general concerns or discuss initiatives related to religious freedom. Religious leaders again stated that the national government did not take the initiative to convene an interfaith dialogue and suggested creating a government institution to address religious issues and act as a link between religious groups and the state would be helpful.

In June a judge ruled in favor of private parties who in 2006 found an 800-pound bronze Nazi eagle with a swastika under its talons from a German World War II cruiser scuttled in Montevideo harbor following the 1939 Battle of the River Plate. The judge ordered the state to sell the bronze piece and split the profits with the private parties. Initially, the Ministry of Defense planned to appeal this ruling, but in December press reported the parties reached an agreement according to which the piece can be auctioned only to either a museum, foundation, or government, and not to private collectors. This solution addressed the concerns of those opposing the sale – including the Ministry of Defense, German government, and Jewish community – that potential buyers would use it as a Nazi worship symbol.

As in previous years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported activities to commemorate the Holocaust, including high-level representation at events organized by the Jewish community. The government publicized religious organization statements and events on its official website. Parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims. In January the government broadcast a national message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Through this message, a representative of the Presidential Office reaffirmed the country’s commitment to the defense of human rights and its condemnation of any act of terrorism and intolerance.

On May 2, national and local government officials, politicians, legislators, diplomats, and human rights activists attended the Jewish community’s commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day organized by the Central Israeli Committee (the country’s umbrella Jewish organization). On November 12, government officials, politicians, and human rights activists attended the Central Israeli Committee’s commemoration of the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Several government officials and politicians posted their participation in the commemoration and emphasizing the need to remember and reflect and to foster tolerance and coexistence.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media reported that during a march commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8, masked women vandalized with red paint the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Mount Carmel in Montevideo, reportedly in disagreement with the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and birth control. Some protesters chanted “Church, trash, you represent the dictatorship” and “I knew it, I knew it, rapists are protected by the police,” among other things. During the year, church authorities installed a fence around the church and requested police protection in response to the vandalism of the church occurring during the women’s march in 2018. Police guarding the church filmed the assault but did not intervene. The Prosecutor’s Office initiated an investigation based on this evidence, which continued through year’s end.

Representatives of several religious communities, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Muslims, Brahma Kumaris, Unification Church, Methodists, and Church of Jesus Christ, among others, continued to express interest in including “objective” information about the different religions in the school curriculum.

Members of the Muslim community said it was occasionally difficult to convince private-sector employers to respect prayer times during work hours and to obtain permission to leave work early to attend Friday prayers.

Jewish representatives reported continued comments and activities in media and on social media sites disparaging their religious beliefs and practices, making anti-Semitic remarks, and denying the Holocaust occurred.

The Zionist Organization of Uruguay presented the 2019 Jerusalem Prize to Cardinal Daniel Sturla, Archbishop of Montevideo. The annual prize recognizes a prominent national figure, typically a representative from government or academia, for promoting and defending the human rights of Jews and encouraging peaceful coexistence among persons of different beliefs.

In May the Catholic Church organized an event entitled, “Views after 100 Years of Church/State Separation.” Speakers included a former minister of education, a historian, a lawyer, and Cardinal Sturla. Church authorities and a wide range of diplomats, legislators, politicians, civil society representatives, and government officials, including the human rights secretary for the Presidential Office, attended the event.

The Board for Interfaith Dialogue, a group of representatives from different religious groups and spiritual expressions, including Brahma Kumaris, the Church of Jesus Christ, Catholics, Jews, evangelical Protestants, and Baha’is, continued to promote interfaith understanding and foster respect for religious diversity through expanding opportunities for dialogue. During the year, the board organized forums open to the general public to promote religious freedom and human rights.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed issues related to religious freedom and discrimination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CHRXD, and the INDDHH. Embassy officials encouraged government representatives to engage in dialogue with all religious groups.

Embassy officials met during the year with religious leaders, including Catholics, Jews, evangelical Protestants, members of other minority religious groups, as well as subject matter experts, including academics, lawyers, and human rights experts, to discuss interfaith collaboration and hear concerns about faith-related issues. In November embassy staff organized and cosponsored a workshop on religious freedom convened by the Catholic University, with representatives of different religions, including minority religious groups, to discuss concerns regarding religious tolerance and religious freedom.

In January the Ambassador participated in the International Holocaust Remembrance Day activity held in parliament and posted on Twitter, “Let us keep in our hearts the memory of every man, woman, and child abused, tortured, and killed in the Shoah. Let us remember the victims, and Never Again.” In March an embassy official attended a memorial event for David Fremd, a Jewish businessman killed in 2017 in an anti-Semitic attack. In November a senior embassy official attended the annual commemoration of Kristallnacht.

The embassy used social media to highlight respect for religious diversity and tolerance, including during the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. and to commemorate International Religious Freedom Day on October 27.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the de facto Maduro government and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property. Representatives of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV) and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said the government harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against their clergy and other members for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. On October 12, the Military Counterintelligence Agency (DCGIM) arrested evangelical Protestant pastor Jose Albeiro Vivas in Barinas State as he delivered a prayer calling for the “spiritual liberation” of the country during an annual religious event. Vivas, also an active duty air force officer, was reportedly arrested for disobedience and remained in detention through year’s end. Media reported armed groups (colectivos) aligned with de facto President Nicolas Maduro attacked churches and their congregants during the year. According to Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje, on January 27, a group of colectivos forced their way into Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in Maracaibo, Zulia State during Mass. The colectivos attacked and injured approximately 15 worshippers inside, fired their weapons, defaced and destroyed church property, and confiscated items of value. Azuaje said police officers stationed nearby did not intervene during the attack. Some members of the Jewish community stated the de facto government and those sympathetic to it used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism. During the year, editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets accused Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly and recognized by the United States as the legitimate interim president, and Guaido-nominated representatives, as agents or lobbyists of Zionism. Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in Maduro-controlled or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages. They said de facto government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of Maduro’s comparing sanctions against Venezuela to Nazi persecution of Jews.

The CAIV representatives said many private citizens in addition to government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Maduro’s de facto government and recognizes Interim President Juan Guaido as the legitimate president. The U.S. embassy suspended operations in Caracas on March 8 and continued to operate from Bogota and Washington, D.C. through the end of the year. Prior to March 8, Maduro administration officials again did not respond to U.S. embassy requests for meetings on religious freedom and related issues. The embassy maintained close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities. Embassy representatives and these groups discussed the de facto government’s imposed registration procedures and delays; harassment by its aligned and armed civilian gangs; anti-Semitic posts in social media and in government-controlled media; and other anti-Semitic acts.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.1 million (2019 midyear estimate). This number, however, does not reflect the October UN estimate that approximately 4.5 million refugees and migrants had left the country since 2015. The U.S. government estimates 96 percent of the population is Catholic. The remaining population includes evangelical Protestants, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baha’is, and Jews.

The ECV estimates 17 percent of the population is Protestant, the majority of whom are members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its numbers at 167,000. The Muslim community numbers more than 100,000 and consists primarily of persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent living in Nueva Esparta State and the Caracas metropolitan area. Sunnis are the majority, with a minority Shia community primarily in Margarita Island in Nueva Esparta State. According to the Baha’i community, its membership is approximately 5,000. According to CAIV, the Jewish community numbers approximately 6,000, with most members living in Caracas. According to an article released in May by the Adam Smith Institute, a think tank located in the United Kingdom, approximately 5,000 Jews live in the country, compared with 30,000 in 1999. Media reported approximately 20,000 Jews had left the country since the 1990s.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition that the practice of a religion does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. A 1964 concordat governs relations between the government and the Holy See and provides for government funding for Catholic Church-run schools. In 2017 the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), which the opposition and much of the international community consider illegitimate, passed an anti-hate law criminalizing acts of incitement to hatred or violence. Individuals who violate the law face 10 to 20 years in prison. The law includes 25 articles stipulating a wide array of directives, restrictions, and penalties. The law criminalizes political party activities promoting “fascism, intolerance, or hatred,” which comprise numerous factors, including religion. It also criminalizes individual acts promoting violence or hatred, the publication or transmission of any messages promoting violence or hatred by any media outlet, and the publication of messages promoting violence or hatred on social media. Among the violations are those committed by individuals or media outlets, including by members of religious groups or media associated with a religious group.

The Directorate of Justice and Religion (DJR) in the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace (MOI) maintains a registry of religious groups, disburses funds to religious organizations, and promotes awareness and understanding among religious communities. Each religious group must register with the DJR to acquire legal status as a religious organization. Registration requires declaration of property belonging to the religious group, identification of any religious authorities working directly for it, and articles of incorporation. Religious groups are required to demonstrate how they will provide social services to their communities and to receive a letter of acceptance from the government-controlled community council in the neighborhood(s) where the group will work. The MOI reviews applications and may delay approval indefinitely. Religious groups must register any new statutes with the DJR.

The law neither prohibits nor promotes religious education in public schools. An 18-year-old agreement between the CEV and the state allows catechists to teach Christian and sacramental values in public schools in preparation for First Communion; this agreement, however, is not enforced.

The law provides for Catholic chaplains to minister to the spiritual needs of Catholics serving in the military. There are no similar provisions for other religious groups.

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

Government Practices

On October 12, DCGIM arrested evangelical Protestant pastor Jose Albeiro Vivas in Barinas State as he delivered a prayer during the March for Jesus, an event held annually throughout the country since 2006. Vivas, also an active duty air force officer, was arrested for disobedience and improper use of military medals, badges and titles. Vivas’ prayer called for the “spiritual liberation” of the country. He remained in detention at year’s end.

Media reported armed groups aligned with the de facto government attacked churches and their congregants during the year. Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje said that on January 27, colectivos forced their way into Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in Maracaibo, Zulia State during Eucharist for children receiving their first communion and confirmation. Colectivos numbering approximately 40 individuals armed with sticks, guns, and grenades attacked and injured approximately 15 worshippers inside, discharged their firearms, defaced and destroyed church property, including the altar, and confiscated other items of value. Among the injured was a nun, who was taken to a local hospital for emergency treatment. Azuaje reported police officers stationed nearby did not intervene during the attack. Church leadership announced they would close the church until the de facto government could guarantee the safety of parishioners.

The CEV reported increased repression against the Catholic Church in the wake of the April 30 uprising against Maduro and his de facto government. On May 1, a group of 40 Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) officers attacked the Our Lady of Fatima Church in San Cristobal, Tachira State, at the end of a religious service, according to Bishop of San Cristobal Mario Moronta. According to Moronta, two officers entered the church on motorcycle, followed by a contingent of 40 GNB officers and their commanding officer. Unable to gain entry, the GNB officers fired tear gas into the church, forcing the pastor to evacuate the congregation, many of whom were elderly, from the building.

On February 8, media reported the external walls of Sweet Name of Jesus Church in the Petare District of Caracas were defaced with written expletives directed at Father Hector Lunar, including “pedophile” and “terrorist.” The defacement occurred after Maduro followers blasted loud music outside the church in an apparent attempt to drown out Lunar’s Mass. According to media reports, Lunar came under attack by the city council, controlled by Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for speaking out against the country’s humanitarian crisis. In January the city council of Sucre declared Lunar persona non grata.

On January 23, priests, seminary students, and 700 protesters remained trapped in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Maturin, Monagas State for hours while colectivos and military personnel attempted to break into the church, according to the CEV.

CEV and other Catholic Church leaders and ECV representatives said the de facto government continued to retaliate against church leaders and clergy members who made statements criticizing it, including by imposing arbitrary registration requirements, and threatening and detaining clergy.

CEV representatives said illegal armed groups supporting the de facto government also targeted members of the clergy. On April 24, CEV denounced death threats from the National Liberation Army (ELN) that Father Richard Garcia, a priest in Tachira State, received for speaking out against the humanitarian crisis and lack of public services during a homily. Garcia’s church was sprayed with graffiti, featuring the initials of the ELN. He also received a pamphlet that stated he was a “political target and public enemy of the revolution.” Media reported a second priest, Father Jairo Clavijo, also received threats that declared him a “military target.”

Church leaders reported Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. SEBIN officers followed and harassed Catholic laity involved in delivering humanitarian aid or participating in public demonstrations and photographed their homes. Archbishop Antonio Lopez Castillo reported SEBIN officials interrogated him in an attempt to convince him to stop issuing complaints against the de facto Maduro government, which the archbishop had labeled an “oppressive regime.”

There were reports that security officials prevented clergy opposing the Maduro de facto government from holding religious services. According to the CEV, on April 7, authorities attempted to block Bishop Moronta from officiating Mass at the Patrocinio Penuela Ruiz Social Security Hospital in San Cristobal, Tachira State by locking him out of the building, despite his having a letter of authorization from the hospital board. Moronta was able to gain entry when a parishioner obtained a second key. On April 18, authorities barred Moronta, this time successfully, from holding a religious service by blocking his access to the Western Penitentiary Center in Tachira, where he was to celebrate a previously scheduled Mass with prison inmates. Maduro’s Minister for Prisons Iris Varela stated she had denied Moronta’s visit because he had “gotten into politics” by issuing proclamations against the Maduro de facto government; she added his diocese was guilty of protecting priests who abused children.

According to the Anti-defamation League (ADL), most anti-Semitic messaging on social media and other media continued to originate from Maduro and his supporters. Some members of the Jewish community stated the de facto government and those sympathetic to it used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism. During the year, editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets accused Guaido and Guaido-nominated representatives as being agents or lobbyists of Zionism. A tweet posted in January by a self-described “revolutionary communicator” stated, “What a coincidence that the first gringos [U.S.] Senators who have come out to support Guaido are all members of the lobby Oil-Financial-Jew. Vultures begin to fly over Venezuela.”

In August Maduro likened U.S. government policy towards the country to Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1940s, stating sanctions against the country were the same as Hitler’s efforts to persecute, exterminate, and prevent the Jewish people from leaving.

Jewish leaders stated to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, the de facto government and media supporting it continued to replace the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” In a February interview, Maduro said Interim President Juan Guaido served the interests of the Zionists. During a June 26 television broadcast, president of the ANC Diosdado Cabello stated the de facto government had disrupted an alleged Zionist coup against Maduro on June 24. On August 21, Cabello called U.S. charges of narcotics trafficking and money laundering against former vice president and current Minister of Industry and National Production Tareck Zaidan El Aissami part of a campaign of the “Zionist lobby.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

CAIV representatives said many private citizens in addition to de facto government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.

On August 31, the National Experimental University of the Arts held the First National Interreligious Meeting in Caracas.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The de facto government again did not respond to the embassy’s requests for meetings to discuss religious freedom and related topics such as freedom of assembly, conscience, and expression.

Embassy officials communicated regularly with a wide range of religious communities and leaders to discuss the de facto government’s treatment of religious groups, registration issues, and government and societal reprisals on some faith groups that disagreed with the de facto Maduro administration’s political agenda. Embassy officials held meetings with representatives from the CEV, ECV, CAIV, and the Muslim community. Each community expressed interest in maintaining communications and exploring possible outreach programs in the future.