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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. The government’s official commitment to secularism continued to generate controversy between religious groups and political leaders. At year’s end, the Prosecutor’s Office continued investigating the case of a public high school teacher who published several social media posts denying the existence of the Holocaust. In March, the government suspended all public gatherings, including religious ones, in compliance with strict health protocols to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Some religious leaders questioned the government’s authority to restrict their right to practice religion through decrees or protocols. According to some religious groups, the government did not consult with them on the drafting of COVID-19 measures, while it did consult with other religious groups, and that the protocols favored some religious groups over others. 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 January, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.

Jewish community representatives continued to report press and social media commentary disparaging their religious beliefs and practices. A Jewish couple received anti-Semitic and threatening comments from a man who sold them a book by a Jewish author through an online platform. The couple reported the incidents to legal authorities, who charged the man with hate crimes. At year’s end, he was awaiting trial while under house arrest and with a restraining order from the couple. Members of the Muslim community continued to state 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. Religious groups continued to promote interfaith dialogue, understanding, and coexistence in the country.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the government’s interpretation of secularism, the lack of a government counterpart responsible for religious issues, and the importance of tolerance towards religious minorities and interfaith collaboration with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Commission against Racism and Xenophobia (CHRXD), and the National Human Rights Institution (INDDHH). Embassy officials met with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, other minority religious group representatives, and the Board for Interfaith Dialogue to discuss their views on government attitudes towards religion and religious groups and the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to practice religion. 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 country’s total population at 3.4 million 2020 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 religious 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 (Church of Jesus Christ), 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, respectively. 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.

The law calls for an annual commemoration of secularism, held on March 19.

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 exemptions, a religious group must apply to, and be approved by, the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) as a registered nonprofit organization. The ministry routinely approves these registrations, after which 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 separate 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 practice.

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.

By registering for official recognition and certification with the Ministry of Education and Culture, religious groups are able to receive benefits, services, recognition, and tax reductions from the government. Religious workers must provide proof of certification from their affiliated religious institution to confirm the applicant’s identity and to guarantee financial support of the sponsoring religious group. 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

At year’s end, the Prosecutor’s Office continued to investigate the case of a public high school teacher who published several social media posts denying the existence of the Holocaust. The Central Israelite Committee filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Institution denouncing the teacher and other persons who posted statements on Facebook and Twitter that denied the Holocaust and expressed other anti-Semitic sentiments. The Prosecutor’s Office, with support from the Information and Intelligence Office of the Ministry of Interior, conducted two separate investigations following the complaint – one on the teacher and the other on individuals posting other anti-Semitic messages on social media.

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 as the coexistence of multiple religions or beliefs and the independence of religion from the state.

With the stated goal of increasing understanding of the country’s religious diversity, representatives of several religious communities, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Muslims, Brahma Kumaris, the Unification Church, Methodists, and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to request the government include in the public school curriculum comprehensive information about different religions with a presence in the country.

Some non-Christian minority religious groups said they believed the government favored Christians, as evidenced by the government’s renaming Christian holidays as official secular holidays, thereby automatically granting Christians time off from work to observe their holidays. For example, Easter Week was officially called “Tourism Week,” while Christians continued to refer to their holidays by their religious names. The government, however, did not designate religious holidays of other religious groups as official holidays, making it necessary for followers of other religions to request a day off to observe their holidays.

On March 1, during presidential inauguration ceremonies, President Lacalle Pou participated in an interreligious prayer service at the Catholic Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral, where leaders of Catholic, Anglican, Armenian, and evangelical Protestant Churches, and of the Jewish community, dedicated prayers to the new President. The Presidency’s social media accounts posted news of the event. Members of several political parties, including Frente Amplio and Partido Colorado, criticized the President’s presence, and in particular the promotion of the event on the Presidency’s social media platform as a violation of the principle of secularism, as established by the constitution.

On March 13, within a week of the country’s first reported COVID-19 case, religious groups suspended all in-person services and events, in accordance with a government decree. On March 25, the Chief of Staff for the Presidency met with leaders of the main religious communities to discuss the suspension of religious services and ceremonies and limitations or modifications of other activities, such as volunteering and engaging in charity work. Participants included representatives of the Central Israelite Committee of Uruguay, the Uruguayan Israelite Community, the New Israelite Congregation, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Evangelical Church, and the Anglican Church.

Many religious groups held virtual services and celebrations while the government decree was in effect. Some religious leaders privately questioned the government’s authority to restrict their right to conduct public religious activities through decrees and protocols. On June 19, the government authorized religious groups to conduct services and celebrations in-person if they followed specific health protocols, including limits on the frequency, duration, and size of gatherings. Although the government worked with religious leaders to draft the protocols, representatives of some religious groups expressed concern that certain protocols were not compatible with their religious observances, which required more than the permitted duration of 45-60 minutes. Some representatives of minority religious groups said they had not been included in the drafting of the protocols and that the protocols favored some religious groups over others. One group said it had requested authorities develop a tailored protocol to meet its needs, but that despite the government’s initial positive response, its request remained pending at year’s end.

In the state of Rivera, where press reported there was more than one COVID-19 outbreak resulting from gatherings of Afro-Umbandist and evangelical Protestant groups, authorities asked religious leaders to urge their followers to respect health protocols, stating that was preferable to fining congregants or closing down places of worship.

A spike in COVID-19 cases in late December led to a virtual meeting among the Chief of Staff for the Presidency, the Minister of Health, and representatives of some religious groups. Following the meeting, the chief of staff announced they had reached an agreement to reinstate the suspension of religious gatherings until January 10, 2021. The Catholic Archbishop of Montevideo said the Church would comply with the government’s decision, although it did not fully agree with the suspension, especially so close to Christmas. The Archbishop said the Catholic Church had been in strict compliance with pandemic health protocols during religious services, without any reported outbreaks. Representatives of some minority groups expressed discontent at not having been invited to participate in the virtual meeting.

A representative of Afro-Umbandists reported most leaders of their religious group had encouraged followers to refrain from in-person ceremonies since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, given the special characteristics of their ceremonies, which involved holding hands, singing and dancing in close proximity, and sharing drinks. Afro-Umbandist leaders discussed a possible protocol with the Ministry of Health to resume their rituals, but they had produced only a draft proposal by year’s end. In view of the upcoming Iemanja celebration in February 2021, bringing thousands of persons to the coasts with offerings to the Sea Goddess, a leader of the group met with the Minister of Defense in December to discuss ways to lower the risk of contagion on public beaches during these rites.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights continued its review of a petition several evangelical Christian organizations filed in 2019. According to the petitioners, which included Mision Vida para Las Naciones, the government had made negative statements that had incited hatred against evangelical churches and had discriminated against them based on religious grounds.

According to Egyptian Center of Islamic Culture representatives, during the year there was no progress in developing land granted to the center in 2019 to build the country’s first Islamic cemetery, located in Canelones Department. The delay was reportedly due to lack of funds. According to media, the Canelones Department government also needed to revise public health regulations to allow Islamic burials without a coffin.

Representatives of the Muslim community continued to report authorities rarely made appropriate meals available in public primary schools for Muslim children who observed halal restrictions.

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

The total number of cases of discrimination based on religion, released by the CHRXD, was not available at the year’s end. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to manage the System for the Monitoring of Recommendations, an interagency, computer-based tool used to monitor and report on human rights issues, including discrimination based on religion.

Some members of Catholic and evangelical Protestant groups continued to say 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 the CHRXD and the INDDHH, did not prioritize the monitoring of 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 LGBTI community, women, incarcerated persons, and human rights violations committed by the state during the military dictatorship.

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 through which to raise general concerns or discuss initiatives regarding religious freedom. They said, however, a government official in the Office of the Presidency was available to discuss COVID-19 related issues as they pertained to religious groups. They suggested creating a government institution to address religious issues and to act as a link between religious groups and the state.

In January, the government adopted the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Members of the Jewish community expressed their support for the government’s adoption, including through press releases. 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 Holocaust-related statements and events of religious organizations on its official website. Parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims. Also in January, the government broadcast a national message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which Enrique Iglesias, renowned economist and Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Commission created by former President Tabare Vazquez in 2019, referred to the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Iglesias said, “The memory of the Holocaust is to be shared, condemned, and transmitted as a monument of ‘never again.’” Closing his speech, he stated, “Never Again will only be a reality when we are all able to recognize the universality of human beings in the specificity of each race, belief, or opinion; this should be the legacy left by the Holocaust for us to remember today.”

In July, the Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed concern regarding a judge’s 2019 ruling in favor of private parties who found and wished to auction an 800-pound bronze Nazi eagle bearing a swastika, stating the decision did not ensure the piece would be sold to institutions and individual bidders who wanted to raise awareness about the Holocaust and other instances of genocide, and that it did not ensure that a buyer would not use the item to glorify Nazism. The center urged authorities to ensure that the display of these symbols serve as a warning to future generations of what should never be repeated, stating that in light of the country’s commitment to the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, the government was obligated to prevent “the public use of symbols that recall ethnic cleansing.” By year’s end, the piece had not been auctioned.

On November 11, government officials, including President Lacalle Pou, politicians, and human rights activists, attended the Central Israelite Committee’s commemoration of the 1938 Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Several government officials and politicians posted online their participation in the commemoration and emphasized the need to remember and reflect, and to foster tolerance and coexistence.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jewish representatives continued to report the occurrence of comments and activities in media and on social media sites disparaging their religious beliefs and practices, including anti-Semitic remarks and Holocaust denial. In November, a woman bought a book written by a Jewish author through an online platform. The seller requested the woman’s cell phone number to complete the transaction, but instead of delivering the purchase, she said he sent “hateful” messages, mentioning Zyklon B, the lethal gas used by Nazis in concentration camps. When the woman’s husband called the seller, the seller threatened him, making statements such as “Hitler ran short,” and, “I will go to your home and kill you all.” The couple, fearful because the man had their address, reported the threats to authorities. The prosecutor handling the case charged the man with “acts of moral or physical violence, hate or contempt toward one or more persons as a result of their skin color, race, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, or identity.” At year’s end, the man was under 60 days’ house arrest and a restraining order while the investigation continued.

Members of the Muslim community continued to state 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.

The Zionist Organization of Uruguay presented the 2020 Jerusalem Prize to Pedro Bordaberry, former Senator, Minister of Tourism, and presidential candidate for the Colorado political party. 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.

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, Afro-Umbandists, and Baha’is, continued to promote interfaith understanding and foster respect for religious diversity through expanding opportunities for dialogue and meetings, both virtually and in-person.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resulting suspension of all in-person religious services, Jewish and Christian religious leaders joined together to produce an online video calling on their communities to maintain hope, stay home, and take care of themselves and others.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the government’s interpretation of secularism, lack of a government counterpart responsible for religious issues, and the importance of tolerance towards religious minorities and interfaith engagement 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 with subject-matter experts, including academics, lawyers, and human rights experts, to discuss interfaith collaboration and to hear concerns about faith-related issues. These individuals expressed their views on the government’s attitude toward religion and religious groups and the impact of COVID-19 on their followers’ ability to practice their religion.

The embassy used social media to highlight respect for religious diversity and tolerance 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. Representatives of the conference of Catholic bishops, officially known as the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV), and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said clergy and other members of their religious communities were harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. In April, officers of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State. Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the Maduro regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property. Media reported nonstate armed groups (NSAGs), called colectivos, aligned with Nicolas Maduro continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, a group of Maduro-aligned colectivos led by regime-controlled security forces assaulted teachers attending Mass prior to a planned protest in Caracas, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Church leaders reported Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. There were reports that regime officials continued to prevent clergy opposing Maduro from holding religious services. According to media reports and other sources, throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. Editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets continued to accuse interim President Juan Guaido and other interim government officials 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 Maduro-controlled or -associated media and supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust and promoted conspiracy theories linking Israel and Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and other social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. Representatives said the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law.

During the year, the VAU continued to engage with the Guaido-led interim government. The VAU also continued to maintain close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities. VAU representatives and members of these groups discussed repression and attacks on religious communities committed by the Maduro regime; harassment by the regime’s aligned and armed civilian gangs; and anti-Semitic posts in social media and in regime-controlled media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate), compared with 32.1 million in the 2019 midyear estimate – a decrease attributable to the outmigration of millions of Venezuelans. 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. Observers estimate as much as 30 percent of the population follows practices of Afro-descendant religions Santeria and Espiritismo, some of which also influence Catholic practices in the country, including in Catholic Church music and festivals.

The ECV estimates 18 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 168,500. 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. Media estimate there are 5,000 Jews, compared with 30,000 in 1999.

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 National Assembly, democratically elected in 2015, and the Guaido-led interim government 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 Maduro-controlled 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 regime-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

“Government” Practices

CEV and ECV representatives said the Maduro regime harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against their clergy and other members of their religious communities for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. On April 8, GNB officers detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State on the grounds that he lacked permission to hold a public gathering under COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Sifontes installed an improvised altar in front of the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church, which included a cross and a tattered Venezuelan flag. Sifontes then led a procession, remaining in his vehicle the entire time, with a statue of Jesus bearing the cross atop his car through the streets of Las Cocuizas, Monagas State. Parishioners denounced Sifontes’ detention as illegal and arbitrary. Sifontes was released later the same day.

Media reported that NSAGs aligned with the Maduro regime continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, members of the teachers union gathered at the Cathedral of Caracas for Mass prior to a protest against Maduro. Colectivos attacked the teachers in the church, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Teachers and journalists covering the protest reported the colectivos involved in the attack were led by members of the GNB. According to sources, on February 11, members of a colectivo linked to the regime attacked a Catholic soup kitchen and health services clinic in Los Teques, Miranda State. The armed and masked colectivos threatened the occupants, robbed them of their valuables, and beat the soup kitchen’s coordinator so severely she was hospitalized.

There were reports that Maduro representatives continued to prevent clergy opposing the regime from holding religious services. On October 5, the mayor of Barbacoas, in Aragua State, closed down and fired the staff of Catholic radio station The Singing Revolutionary. The station director’s son, Anthony Gonzalez, previously a seminarian at a local seminary, led a religious service on October 4, during which he criticized Maduro for the lack of ambulances, biosafety equipment, and supplies at medical centers needed to transport and treat COVID-19 patients as well as combat the disease.

Church leaders reported SEBIN officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. The leaders said SEBIN officers followed and harassed Catholic laity involved in delivering humanitarian aid or participating in public demonstrations and photographed their homes.

According to media reports and other sources, throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. In a January 14 homily, Bishop Victor Hugo Basabe – Bishop of the Diocese of San Felipe and Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto – denounced what he called the abuse of power and use of force against the population. Later the same day, Maduro responded to Basabe’s remarks in his annual address to the ANC, in which he accused Basabe of using the homily to manipulate faith for “retrograde, reactionary, and right-wing politics,” and he demanded bishops not conduct politics from the pulpit.

During a July 27 television broadcast, Maduro called on the Catholic Church to use its churches and other places of worship, closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, to house Venezuelans returning from abroad who had contracted COVID. The CEV responded that church facilities, while engaged in the distribution of medicine and humanitarian aid, lacked the necessary equipment and medical infrastructure to provide lifesaving care to COVID patients. CEV representatives stated that Maduro’s demand was an attempt to deflect criticism from his mistreatment of Venezuelans afflicted by the virus. Mariano Parra Sandoval, Archbishop of Coro, Falcon State, suggested Maduro use military installations instead of churches because the former were better equipped to care for COVID-19 patients. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the Maduro regime instead forcibly detained returning COVID-positive Venezuelans in makeshift camps under terrible conditions.

Media reported the Maduro regime regularly accused Catholic laity of being “perverts” and perpetrators of pedophilia who acted with the complicity of Church leadership. On January 22, then-Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, an active-duty National Guard general who later became Minister of Electrical Energy, stated, “Instead of devoting themselves to politics, Catholic authorities should focus on removing priests who engage in these aberrant activities.” He cited the case of Father Jesus Manuel Rondon Molina, of Rubio, Tachira State, killed on January 16 by an individual who said the priest had sexually abused him. On January 20, the CEV issued a statement denying the Church had attempted to cover up abuse allegations and stating the Church had initiated an investigation of Rondon Molina and prohibited him from meeting with minors.

According to media, on March 29, colectivos spray-painted words threatening to attack “the damned opposition” on the walls of the Saint Catalina Church in Carupano, Sucre State, signing the messages with “Bolivarian Fury.” Colectivos adopted the phrase from a March 26 speech by Maduro to launch an intimidation campaign against perceived opponents.

CAIV representatives said Maduro regime representatives continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and that the community placed U.S. interests above those of the country. 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 regime and those sympathetic to it, including some media outlets, used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism, saying they avoided accusations of anti-Semitism by replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” During the year, editorials in state-owned and pro-Maduro media outlets accused Guaido and Guaido-nominated representatives of being agents or lobbyists for Zionism. During a September 2 television broadcast, ANC president Diosdado Cabello called opposition politician David Smolansky “an agent of Zionism, the most murderous of Zionist assassins.”

Regime-controlled news media and regime-friendly social media posts circulated theories that linked the COVID-19 pandemic to Israel and Jews. In a May 15 social media post, Basem Tajeldine, an analyst for state-owned media outlet TeleSur, characterized Israel as a virus, calling the “IsraHell virus as much of a killer as COVID-19, eating the lungs of the Palestinian people from the 1947 Nakba to today.”

Members of the Maduro regime continued to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. On June 12, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court appointed Luis Fuenmayor Toro, known for his statements questioning the existence of the Holocaust, to the National Electoral Council.

On October 19, the CEV released a pastoral letter, “On the social, economic, moral and political situation of the country,” that stated “both the ruling party and the opposition do not present a project for the country that is able to bring together and convince the majority of the Venezuelan people to live in justice, freedom and peace” and that called for “a change of attitude in all the political leaders.” According to the CEV letter, and in reference to what it termed the fraudulent December 6 legislative elections, “The electoral event scheduled for next December 6, far from contributing to the democratic solution of the political situation we are experiencing today, tends to worsen it,” and, “It is immoral to hold elections when people suffer the consequences of the pandemic, lack the minimum conditions necessary for their survival, and there are no transparent rules and verification mechanisms that should characterize an electoral process.”

In response to the creation in April of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council by religious groups not associated with Maduro, the regime created its own National Religious Council that included representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, evangelical Protestant, and Afro-descendant communities, as well as the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches. Observers criticized the move as an attempt to politicize religious communities and create the appearance of support for the Maduro regime.

Throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime met with the Evangelical Christian Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a pro-Maduro organization. Leaders of the Evangelical and Baptist Churches said members of MOCEV were unknown to them and did not speak for their religious communities. ECV Vice President Jose Pinero said he believed MOCEV may have received benefits from the regime in exchange for its political support.

The Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela, whose foundation Maduro announced in December 2019, had not opened by year’s end. Members of the Catholic and Evangelical communities rejected the initiative, stating it was an attempt to “buy their conscience,” and they voiced concern that any such institution would demonstrate an ideological bent in favor of the Maduro. On February 13, Jose Vielma Mora, Maduro’s Vice President for Religious Affairs, called for the creation of religious workshops and educational programs at universities to build religious tolerance. Observers criticized the announcement as “political interference” and an attack on the independence of the religious and university sectors. Student leaders pointed out the impracticality of such programs, given the regime’s refusal to fund university budgets, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which, they said, limited the ability of universities to hold classes of any type.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Articles published on the online newspaper Aporrea stated COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed by Israel, and that Zionists used the pandemic to destabilize the country and foment a coup against Maduro.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. According to its founding members, the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law. Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas and CEV Secretary General Jose Trinidad Fernandez said the council was “a structure of reflection and action based on plurality, whose contribution will generate consensus to mitigate the serious problems that our society is experiencing.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States continues to recognize the authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly and of Juan Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela and does not recognize the Maduro regime as a government. In 2019, the Department of State announced the temporary suspension of operations of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and announced the opening of the VAU, located at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. The VAU is the U.S. mission to Venezuela, which continues engagement with the Government of Venezuela and outreach to the Venezuelan people. During the year, the VAU maintained close contact with the Guaido-led interim government to discuss actions by the Maduro regime that infringe upon religious freedom and other human rights.

VAU officials communicated regularly with a wide range of religious communities and leaders in the country to discuss the treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitic rhetoric by the Maduro regime and its supporters, and reprisals on some faith groups that disagree with Maduro’s political agenda. In conversations with embassy officials, religious leaders expressed their concern that the continued presence of the Maduro regime would only further the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the country, and that criticism of Maduro would increase hostility towards faith communities. VAU 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. The VAU also communicated the value of religious freedom in interviews with media outlets and on digital media.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future