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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.

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.

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