The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religion. The law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting rigorous criteria. On November 24, a court in Luanda sentenced four Muslims to three years’ imprisonment and a fine for allegedly forming a radical Islamic group and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Two others were acquitted of similar charges. The government continued to state its concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which the government said exploited vulnerable populations. In his first State of the Nation speech to the parliament in October, newly elected President Joao Lourenco called for changes to the 2004 law on religious freedom and measures to reinforce the separation of religion from business. Subsequently, the Ministry of Culture launched a dialogue with officially recognized churches to obtain input for the drafting of a new law on religious freedom. There are 81 religious groups and four ecumenical associations recognized and more than 1,000 unrecognized religious groups. The government has not recognized any new religious groups since passage in 2004 of the law that requires religious groups to have at least 100,000 citizens as members. The government did not respond to Muslim community groups’ requests for government recognition submitted in 2005. Many unregistered religious groups continued to operate with what they described as tacit acceptance. The government encouraged these groups to join associations to serve as interlocutors with the state and exert control over their respective members. During the year the four associations that interacted with the government oversaw approximately 1,000 unrecognized religious groups.
Police arrested three suspects who were involved in an August 26 gas attack on the annual congress of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Luanda, which killed two persons and injured 400. As of year’s end, four other suspects remained at large. While the motivation behind the attack remained unclear, one media source claimed that two of the alleged perpetrators belonged to an opposition political party that wanted to punish the Jehovah’s Witnesses for not voting in the recently concluded national elections. Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups, while they also acknowledged the need for greater religious understanding and interfaith dialogue.
Throughout the year, the embassy raised religious freedom issues, including long-pending registration applications and the drafting of the new religious freedom law with government officials. Embassy officials met with representatives of religious groups and civil society organizations and discussed their views regarding the government’s concern with the proliferation of churches and also discussed efforts to promote interfaith dialogue.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the state as secular and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution requires the state to protect churches and religious groups as long as they comply with the law. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship, and it recognizes the right of religious groups to organize and carry out their activities as long as they adhere to the law. The constitution permits conscientious objection for religious reasons, prohibits questioning individuals about their religious beliefs for reasons other than anonymous statistical purposes, and specifies that religious rights may not be suspended even if the state declares a state of war, siege, or emergency. It recognizes the right of prisoners to receive visits from, and correspond with, religious counselors. The law establishes that conscientious objectors can perform civilian service as an alternative to military service.
The religious freedom law requires religious groups to register for legal recognition from the state. Legal recognition gives religious groups the ability to purchase property collectively and use their property to hold religious events, exempts them from paying certain property taxes, and authorizes a group to be treated as an incorporated entity in the court system. To apply for government recognition, a religious group must collect 100,000 member signatures from legal residents from 12 of the 18 provinces and submit them to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (MJHR). The law also requires religious groups to submit documents defining their organizational structure, methods of worship, leadership, and the amount of time the group has operated in the country, and that their doctrine be in accordance with principles and rights the constitution. In 2015 the MJHR issued a circular that provides for the establishment of ecumenical associations and the requirements for an unrecognized religious group to incorporate with the ecumenical association. While the MJHR is responsible for registration and recognition of religious groups, oversight of religious organizations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture through its National Institute for Religious Affairs (INAR).
Religious instruction is not a component of the public educational system. Private schools are allowed to teach religion.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 24, a court in Luanda sentenced four Muslims to three years’ imprisonment and fined them 70,000 kwanzas ($410) for allegedly forming a radical Islamic group and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Two other defendants were acquitted. The defendants maintained their innocence and said they were discriminated against because of their Muslim faith. They acknowledged they discussed religion over the internet through a Facebook page and stated they had discussed writings by a Brazilian Muslim who was detained in Brazil related to charges of participating in a terrorist cell. Lawyers for the defendants asserted their clients’ innocence and said that discussing religion on social media and sharing religious beliefs with others was not a crime and was a common practice among other religious communities. In a private meeting, a leader in the Muslim community said that he did not believe the individuals were persecuted for their religious beliefs, and he agreed that they should be tried and held accountable for any crimes they might have committed so as not to cast a negative light on the Muslim community in Angola.
Government officials at the highest levels continued to state concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which were alleged to have exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues to worship or belong to these organizations. In President Lourenco’s first address to parliament on October 16, he expressed the desire to change the law on religious freedom in order to reinforce the lines separating religion from business. A few days after the president’s speech, the minister of culture started a dialogue with officially recognized churches to elicit input that would be taken into account as the government drafted a new religious freedom law. On November 11, the vice-governor of Luanda Province stated her wish to curtail the proliferation of religious sects that she said operated churches solely as profitable businesses rather than simply places of worship, or were detrimental to social order.
The government again recognized no new religious groups, and the number officially recognized remained at 81. The government has not recognized a new religious group since 2004 when it created the current application system. A large number of groups continued to await recognition despite having submitted several applications for registration. In 2015, the government estimated that approximately 1,300 religious groups were operating without government recognition, some of which were providing education and medical care to members despite having no legal authority to do so.
The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups officially or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally. The Muslim community requested official recognition of its groups but was unable to meet the requirements of the 2004 law, including having 100,000 citizen members and a religious doctrine aligned with the country’s constitution. In the past government officials had stated that some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution.
The Muslim community was organized under the Islamic Foundation of Angola (FIA), which interacts with the government and organizes the mosques and adherents in the country. The FIA applied for recognition but did not receive an official response from the government as of year’s end. The Islamic Community of Angola (COIA) is a civil rights organization that applied for recognition in 2005 and also had not received a response from the government. According to the COIA leadership, the high threshold for obtaining legal status, combined with the fact that the majority of recognized religious organizations were Christian, indicated the government opposed recognizing non-Christian religious groups. The Bahai Faith and the Global Messianic Church remained the only two non-Christian organizations legally registered.
During the year the government continued to lead an effort to bring unrecognized Christian groups together in associations that would then receive de facto government recognition, requesting those groups to support actively government requests, such as calls to register for elections, and not to engage in illegal practices. The government approved the operation of four coalitions of Christian churches: the evangelical Christian Union of Churches of the Holy Spirit in Angola, the Protestant Christian Church Coalition of Angola, the National Convention of Angolan Christian Churches, and the Angolan Reviving Churches Council. The INAR stated that since 2016 dozens of groups had joined these associations to avoid closure.
Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets continued to accuse the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely. In June and July the media reported several instances of national- and local-level politicians presenting the ruling party’s platform to religious leaders and requesting their support in getting congregation members to polling places and ensure an atmosphere of peace during the election period.
While religious groups were free to run radio stations and written press, the government did not approve a 2009 request from the Catholic radio station Ecclesia to extend its signal beyond Luanda.
The constitution establishes a secular state and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice. All religious groups must register with the government. Five followers of the Baname Church died on January 28 from asphyxiation in the Department of Oueme after the church leadership advised them to seal themselves in prayer rooms and burn incense and charcoal. The prosecutor at the Court of Porto-Novo ordered the detention of four leaders of the church in connection with the incident and in February brought manslaughter charges against them.
On June 8, two persons died and several were injured during a violent clash between followers of the Baname Church and local residents of the Djime neighborhood in Abomey due to church followers’ statements that local residents deemed offensive to the historic King of Abomey. On August 20, members of the Zangbeto brotherhood prevented members of the Church of the Assemblies of God from attending Sunday services in Doukonta, in the southwest, after the church pastor accused them of stealing a chicken from him for a ritual purpose. Interfaith dialogue occurred regularly throughout the country.
Embassy officials toured three predominantly Muslim cities in the northern part of the country to meet with Muslim leaders, Muslim women’s associations, and Quranic teachers. Discussions focused on religious freedom issues, interfaith dialogue, and the rejection of religious intolerance and violence. The Ambassador participated in interreligious events, where she advocated interreligious dialogue in support of peace.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice, consistent with public order as established by law and regulations.
The Ministry of Defense through the gendarmes, generally in rural areas, and the Ministry of Interior through the police, generally in cities, have the authority to intervene in conflicts between religious groups to ensure public order and social peace, provided the intervention complies with the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs. On July 18, the government announced the police force and the gendarmerie would merge into a single entity under the Ministry of Interior effective January 1, 2018.
Persons who wish to form a religious group or establish a religious affiliation must register with the Ministry of Interior. Registration requirements include submission of administrative materials (including the applicant’s birth certificate, police record, request letter, copy of identification, and the group’s internal rules) and payment of a registration fee of 50,000 CFA francs ($89). If a group is not registered, the Ministry of Interior orders the closing of the religious facilities until the group registers.
By law, public schools may not provide religious instruction. Religious groups may establish private schools given the authorization of the state and may benefit from state subsidies.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On the night of January 28, five followers of the Baname Church died from asphyxiation in the department of Oueme and several more were hospitalized after church leaders told followers to shut themselves in their prayer rooms and burn incense and charcoal sold to them by the church. Following the incident, the prosecutor at the Court of Porto-Novo ordered the detention of four priests of the church and in February entered manslaughter charges against them. The church leader, who, according to media reports, is known for opposing other religions, especially voodoo, and who has stated that she was a “living god” was not arrested or charged; she later told a radio reporter that the five who died were not really church members, but “people who came to test us.”
Government officials attended inductions, funerals, and other religious ceremonies organized by various groups. State-owned television often broadcast these events. Police provided security for any religious event upon request.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, among other responsibilities. The MOI established in June the National Table of the Religious Sector, which, along with corresponding entities at the regional level, offers religious organizations direct participation in policy formulation related to religious freedom. The Mennonite Association for Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitoring human rights and religious freedom regardless of religious affiliation, expressed concern over a new law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. Justapaz representatives said that because of the disproportionate staffing of these commissions by members of the armed forces, the commissions were not independent and impartial.
NGOs continued to report that in many areas of the country, illegal armed groups threatened leaders and members of religious organizations. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia (ECC) stated that on July 27, unknown assailants killed Father Diomer Eliver Chavarria Perez in the Santa Rosa de Osos diocese in Antioquia Department. On October 3, unknown attackers robbed and killed Father Abelardo Antonio Munoz Sanchez in Rionegro. The Jewish community reported continued comments promoting anti-Semitism on some social media sites, including aggressive actions by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Colombia, an anti-Israel protest movement. During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation, including a series of talks in Bogota in October and November with former guerrilla combatants.
U.S. embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom, including conscientious objection to military service and the effect of illegal armed actors on religious practice, with government officials. Embassy officials met with the Human Rights Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the International Affairs Directorate of the Attorney General’s Office, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. Embassy officials also met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish and Muslim communities, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants, Baptists, and Mennonites. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed issues related to eliminating institutionalized discrimination and the importance of promoting freedom of religion and association, conscientious objection, peace, and tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. There is no official state church or religion, but the law says the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” The constitution states all religions and churches are equal before the law. A 1998 Constitutional Court ruling upheld the right of traditional authorities to enforce the observation of and participation in traditional religious beliefs and practices on indigenous reserves. Recent rulings referred to the 1998 decision to reaffirm the right of indigenous governors to prohibit the practice of certain religions on indigenous reserves. A concordat between the Holy See and the government, made into law, recognizes marriages performed by the Catholic Church, allows the Church to provide chaplaincy services, and prohibits members of the Catholic clergy from compulsory public service, including military service. A court ruling determined these provisions were constitutional so long as they apply to all religious groups.
The law prohibits any official government reference to a religious affiliation for the country.
The MOI is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, as well as keeping a public registry of religious entities. Entities formally recognized by the MOI can then confer this recognition, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated groups sharing the same beliefs. The application process requires submission of a formal request and basic organizational information, including copies of an act of constitution and an estimation of the number of members, to obtain formal recognition. The government considers a religious group’s total membership, its degree of acceptance within society, and other factors, such as the organization’s statutes and its required behavioral norms, when deciding whether to grant the religious group formal recognition. The MOI is authorized to reject requests that are incomplete or do not fully comply with established requirements. The MOI provides a free, web-based registration process for religious and faith-based organizations seeking recognition. Formally recognized entities may collect funds and receive donations, establish religious education institutions, and perform religious services not including marriages. Unregistered entities may still perform religious activities without penalty but may not collect funds or receive donations.
The state recognizes as legally binding religious marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and 13 additional non-Catholic Christian denominations that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. This agreement enables non-Catholic religious groups to engage in a number of activities previously restricted to the Catholic Church, such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance in prisons, hospitals, military facilities, and educational institutions. Under this agreement, members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor affiliates must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage. Non-Catholic religious groups seeking to provide chaplaincy services and conduct state-recognized marriages must also solicit formal state recognition from the MOI.
The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the education their child receives, including religious instruction. The law states religious education shall be offered in accordance with laws protecting religious freedom, and it identifies the Ministry of Education as responsible for establishing guidelines for teaching religion within the public school curriculum. Religious groups, including those that have not acceded to the public law agreement, may establish their own schools, provided they comply with ministry requirements. A Constitutional Court ruling obligates schools to implement alternative accommodations for students based on their religion, which could include students at religious institutions opting out of prayers or religious lessons. The government does not provide subsidies for private schools run by religious organizations.
The law imposes a penalty of one to three years in prison and a fine of 7.4 million to 11 million Colombian pesos ($2,500 to $3,700) for violations of religious freedoms, including discrimination based on religion. The penal code also prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs, including physical or moral harm.
A Constitutional Court ruling states citizens, including members of indigenous communities, may be exempt from compulsory military service if they can demonstrate a serious and permanent commitment to religious principles that prohibit the use of force. Conscientious objectors who are exempt from military service are required to complete alternative, government-selected public service. A law passed in August reinforces protections for conscientious objectors and expands options for compulsory military service exemptions by removing the prior distinction between times of war and peace. It also requires that regional interagency commissions (Interdisciplinary Commissions on Conscientious Objection, or ICCOs), under the Ministry of Defense, evaluate requests for conscientious objector status; commission members include representatives from the armed forces, the Inspector General’s Office, and medical, psychological, and legal experts. According to the new law, the National Commission of Conscientious Objection reviews any cases not resolved at the regional level.
Foreign missionaries must possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. The MFA issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who are members of religious organizations officially recognized and registered with the MOI. When they apply for a visa, foreign missionaries must have a certificate from either the MOI or church authorities confirming registration of their religious group with the MFA. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a registered religious group confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. The visa application also requires a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious group stating the organization accepts full financial responsibility for the expenses of the applicant and family, including funds for return to their country of origin or last country of residence. Applicants must explain the purpose of the proposed sojourn and provide proof of economic means. A Constitutional Court ruling stipulates that no group may force religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Justapaz said there were two cases of arbitrary arrest related to military service targeting members of evangelical Christian churches. The army detained a high school student and member of the Foursquare Church on January 26 for what the army said was the student’s failure to complete compulsory military service in Tolima Department’s municipality of Honda. The student, who said he objected to military service because of his religious beliefs, was in detention for eight days and then released. On May 4, the army detained a displaced victim and member of the United Pentecostal Church of Colombia in Bogota and informed him he would be required to complete compulsory military service. The Inspector General’s Office interceded on the man’s behalf, securing his release after six hours in detention.
The ECC objected to the Ministry of Education’s mention of sexual orientation and gender identity in an antidiscrimination campaign in public schools, as well as the government’s decision to omit the Te Deum liturgical service from the July 20 independence celebration. The ECC perceived these actions as “ignoring the religious dimension of the individual” and infringing upon one’s right to express in public one’s religious beliefs.
The MOI reported it received 1,243 applications for formal recognition of religious entities, approved 581, and archived 95 due to failure to complete the required documentation during the year. The MOI continued to review the remaining applications, some of which awaited additional information from applicants. The MOI said the majority of applications were from evangelical Christian churches. The MOI gave applicants who submitted incomplete applications or incorrect supporting documents 30 days to bring their applications into compliance. If the MOI deemed an application incomplete, it could deny the application; however, the applying organization was able to resubmit an application at any time. There was no waiting period to reapply. The MOI reported it rejected applications only if they were determined to be incomplete.
The Traditional Episcopal Church and International Ministerial Church of Jesus Christ filed petitions to accede to the 1997 public law agreement enabling religious groups to provide chaplaincy services and perform marriages. The petitions remained pending at year’s end; however, the government proposed interim agreements to allow the two groups to perform marriages and provide chaplaincy services.
According to religious groups, individuals continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from military service on religious grounds. Justapaz reported an increase in requests for conscientious objector status, likely due to increased outreach and the August law’s inclusion of conscientious objector status as a valid exemption from compulsory military service. The National Army Reserve Recruitment and Control Command stated it had received 140 requests for recognition of conscientious objector status. Of those, it approved 86 by the end of the year. Justapaz stated that the ICCOs interagency commissions established by the August law to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status were staffed disproportionally by members of the armed forces, which it said ran counter to a 1998 UN resolution requiring that independent and impartial bodies evaluate objection requests to protect the rights to freedom of worship and of consciousness.
The Association of Conscientious Objectors of Colombia (ACOOC) said indigenous peoples were often unaware of their rights to object on religious grounds because of language differences.
An article added to the 2014-18 National Development Plan required the MOI to develop new guidelines on freedom of religion. Specifically, the new article mandated the MOI work with religious groups to develop policies to guarantee freedom of religion and equal treatment among religious groups. The MOI issued a resolution in June guaranteeing religious groups’ participation in the formulation and implementation of this policy through the creation of the National Table of the Religious Sector and corresponding entities at the regional level. The final version, which entered into force on December 12, focused on the promotion of religious rights and the social and institutional inclusion of the country’s religious plurality. It also emphasized the importance of reducing social, cultural, and institutional factors that fuel intolerance, exclusion, and persecution; guaranteed conditions of equality among the various religions and denominations; and proposed implementing strategies to create and strengthen peace initiatives and social projects with religious entities.
The Colombian National Police, through the Protection and Special Services Directorate, continued to provide security for religious sites under threat. Some religious groups filed reports of threats with the police; however, they said they had not received updates related to follow-up investigations or charges.
In accordance with a declaration signed by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016, the country again observed July 4 as the National Day of Religious Freedom. In connection with the observance, the MOI and regional governments held various forums and presentational events to educate the public on the significance of the holiday and build bridges with religious organizations.
On July 27, the ECC reported the killing of 31-year-old Father Diomer Eliver Chavarria Perez, “in the exercise of his mission” in the Santa Rosa de Osos diocese in Antioquia Department. According to the ECC, unknown assailants killed Father Chavarria during the night in his home. In a separate incident, unknown attackers robbed and killed Father Abelardo Antonio Munoz Sanchez, 41, in Rionegro on October 3.
As in past years, there were media and NGO reports that guerrillas, illegal armed groups, and organized crime groups threatened leaders and members of religious groups and targeted them for extortion. A recent study by the Bogota mayor’s office and National University of Colombia, which investigated cases of intolerance, discrimination, and religious persecution against religious leaders in the capital, showed that 13 percent of respondents had received threats of violence, kidnapping, or extortion due to their religious beliefs.
Protestant leaders continued to state that isolation and fear of retribution in rural communities led to underreporting of clergy assault, harassment, and killings. Some religious leaders said they chose not to report cases formally to law enforcement or seek government security assistance because of fear of retribution by illegal armed groups. Justapaz continued to report threats from criminal groups and forced displacements of clergy and parishioners of the Anglican Church, Mennonite Church, and House on the Rock Church.
Global Ministries reported threats, forced displacement, and arbitrary detentions by illegal armed groups against members of evangelical Christian churches in Santander and Antioquia. According to Global Ministries, suspected National Liberation Army guerrillas forced a pastor of an independent Christian church along with his family out of their community in El Bagre, Antioquia, following threats of violence on February 28. The motive behind this displacement was unknown.
The NGO Witness for Peace continued to report guerrillas and illegal armed groups threatened, displaced, or attacked religious leaders for promoting human rights, assisting internally displaced persons, assisting with land restitution claims, and discouraging coca cultivation. Religious groups, including Justapaz and Global Ministries, reported armed groups continued to restrict religious freedom by limiting freedom of movement and preventing individuals from attending religious services.