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.
The constitution establishes the state as secular, prohibits religious harassment, and provides for freedom of religion and worship. According to media, security officers combating Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions killed Christians and clergymen and attacked places of worship. In April soldiers shot and killed a Baptist pastor on his way to church in Mfumte Village. In September soldiers shot and killed a woman outside the Roman Catholic church in Bambui. In May security forces set fire to a Protestant church during clashes with separatists in Bamenda, the Northwest Region’s capital. In October security forces arrested a Catholic priest in Bamenda, reportedly because he accused soldiers of human rights abuses during an address to the United Nations, according to one of his colleagues. He was released a day later. Religious media outlets accused the government of arming Muslim herders and encouraging them to attack Christians in the town of Wum, and of exploiting sporadic clashes over land between Mbororo herders and local farmers, attempting to introduce a religious character to the conflict in the Northwest Region between security forces and separatists. In February police briefly detained a pastor of the Cameroon Evangelical Church (CEC) and accused him of inciting rebellion during a sermon. On several occasions, Christians in the Northwest and Southwest Regions said security forces interrupted church services and prevented them from accessing places of worship. During the year, the government appointed a board to manage the CEC’s affairs. The government said it acted to preserve order within the CEC, which was undergoing an internal dispute over the election of Church leaders after the government suspended elected executives. Religious leaders expressed frustration with the government’s failure to register any new religious groups for the ninth consecutive year and said many requests remained pending.
Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued to carry out violent attacks against civilians, government officials, and military forces. Attacks on civilians included suicide bombings, church burnings, killings and kidnappings of Muslims and Christians, and theft and destruction of property, including arson. Insurgents attacked places of worship and private homes. Boko Haram targeted Muslims, Christians, and animists without apparent distinction, while ISIS-WA tended to attack military and other government installations.
Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions kidnapped clerics, including bishops and priests, and sometimes limited Christians’ ability to attend church services. According to the Catholic Church, Anglophone separatists targeted Catholic clergy for kidnapping due to the Church’s advocacy for school resumption in the Northwest and Southwest Regions and their perception that the Church was able and willing to pay ransoms. Unidentified individuals killed two Bible translators in Wum; the local Christian population said the largely Muslim Mbororo herder community was responsible. In May residents of the largely Muslim neighborhood of Upkwa in Wum stated that Anglophone separatists burned down their mosque, reportedly because of rumors that some Muslims acted as informants to the security forces. Throughout the year, Muslim and Christian leaders initiated interfaith activities aimed at facilitating interreligious dialogue, promoting peaceful coexistence of different faiths, and seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, where Anglophone separatists were seeking secession. In July the Council of Imams and Muslim Dignitaries organized a seminar in Yaounde to sensitize Muslim preachers to religious extremism.
U.S. embassy officials discussed with government officials the failure to register religious organizations, the impact of the violence in the Anglophone regions on religious freedom, and perceptions by Pentecostal churches of government bias in favor of Catholic and Protestant churches. In discussions with leading figures from the main religious groups, embassy officers stressed the importance of interfaith dialogue, prevention of violent extremism related to religion, and the need for a peaceful solution to the Anglophone separatist crisis. The embassy hosted two roundtables – in Yaounde and Douala, respectively – on religious freedom, during which participants discussed religious freedom as an important component of human rights, the process for registering religious organizations, and key challenges and opportunities facing religious freedom in the country.
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.