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.
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.