Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Representatives of several religious groups continued to state that a government requirement for religious groups to register first with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, noting the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were prerequisites for seeking tax-exempt status, visas for foreign clergy, and permission to hold public activities. Religious group representatives said they deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.
Representatives of some religious groups continued to criticize a 2020 IGJ resolution requiring all civil associations, including religious groups, to have gender parity on their administrative and oversight bodies. Several religious groups continued to state this requirement was unconstitutional and violated religious freedom. They also said the government had not implemented the resolution by year’s end and they knew of no religious organizations penalized for failing to comply with it.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government limited through September the size of religious activities nationwide to a maximum of 20 persons in enclosed or private open-air spaces, and to 100 persons in public open-air spaces. It similarly limited cultural, social, and recreational activities but did not limit to the same degree professional gatherings, government events, and educational events. On October 1, the government allowed full capacity for religious activities, although events of more than 1,000 persons required stricter protocols.
On May 2, provincial police halted and dispersed an open-air Mass in Androgue, Buenos Aires Province, attended by approximately 120 persons. According to a police statement, the event was “openly in noncompliance” with national anti-COVID-19 restrictions. Local media reported that attendees said the Mass was broken up “on very good terms.” In a May 4 statement, CALIR president Juan Navarro said these police actions were not an isolated event and that local and national authorities had repeatedly violated the right to religious freedom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
On September 7, CALIR released a statement objecting to some municipalities’ prohibitions on religious services on Sunday, September 12, because of nationwide primary elections and related COVID-19 precautions. Although federal law prohibits large gatherings and acts of proselytism on election days, authorities generally allowed religious services. Local media reported that the municipalities of Merlo and Bahia Blanca, in Buenos Aires Province, issued prohibitions on religious gatherings for September 12, but Merlo’s authorities retracted the order after consulting with local religious leaders.
According to Jewish community leaders, there was no progress in bringing the accused perpetrators of the 1994 AMIA bombing to justice. On July 18, the 27th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, AMIA president Eichbaum urged the government to “intensify pressure on Lebanon and the Islamic Republic of Iran to cooperate on the investigation and extradite the accused that they are currently protecting.” On July 14, President Fernandez and Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri hosted AMIA leaders at the presidential residence to discuss the pursuit of justice and Fernandez told them he wanted to see progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 bombing. On July 18, Fernandez tweeted his support for families of the victims, writing, “In 27 years since the AMIA attack, the families of the 85 victims stand firm in their call for truth and justice. In memory of each one of them and in honor of those that lost their loved ones, we should stand united against impunity.” In response to Fernandez, dozens of individuals criticized what some called the “hypocrisy” of his message because of their perception that the government was complicit in allowing the impunity to occur.
In August, the MFA denounced the Iranian government’s appointment of two suspects in the AMIA bombing to senior positions in a new Iranian government. According to the MFA statement, the appointments of Ahmad Vahidi as Interior Minister and Mohsen Rezai as Vice President for Economic Affairs were an affront to the Argentine justice system and to the victims of the bombing, adding that both Rezai and Vahidi played key roles in the decision making and planning of the AMIA attack. It called on the Iranian government to cooperate fully with Argentine judicial authorities and to allow the suspects to be tried by a competent court.
According to press reports, on October 7, judges dropped obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in relation to a Memorandum of Understanding signed with Iran in 2013 when she was president. The court stated that the memorandum, “regardless of whether it is considered a political success or a failure, did not constitute a crime or an act of cover up.” On October 25, DAIA appealed the ruling, which remained pending at year end.
On January 24, a law entered into effect legalizing abortions through the 14th week of pregnancy and in later stages if the pregnancy was the result of rape or threatened the life of the mother. Many religious organizations, including the Catholic Church and the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches (ACIERA), criticized the law, and a growing number of medical professionals – especially in rural areas – refused to perform abortions on religious and ethical grounds. Most of the 120 gynecologists in the province of Jujuy, for example, declared themselves as conscientious objectors, as permitted in the law.
On March 27, approximately 50,000 persons, according to organizers, participated in marches in 14 of the 23 provinces to express their support for overturning the abortion law. With the encouragement of ACIERA, marchers demonstrated in Rio Negro, Tucuman, Chubut, Entre Rios, Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Chaco, Corrientes, Salta, Mendoza, Chaco, Corrientes, Santiago del Estero, and Santa Fe Provinces.
Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following a 2018 agreement between the government and the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), representing the Catholic Church, that delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to gradually reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from almost 157 million pesos ($1.46 million) in 2019 to 150 million pesos ($1.39 million) in 2020.
On May 20, Juan Carlos Giordano, a representative of the lower house of congress and member of the Socialist Left Party, stated during a session of congress, “An end must be brought to the Zionist state and a unified state must be imposed across the entirety of the historical territory of the Palestine – lay, not racist, and democratic.” DAIA denounced the statement, stating that it met the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as adopted by the lower house of congress in June 2020. By year’s end, the lower house had not sanctioned Giordano.
On January 6, Pablo Ansaloni, a representative of the lower house of congress and a leader of the Argentine Union of Rural Workers (UATRE), told a virtual meeting of the union, “We are more united than ever, no one can break us – no one from beyond our province, because they are like the Jews, they have no homeland, they don’t know where they are or who they represent.” Ansaloni faced criticism for his comments from several civil society actors, including DAIA and UATRE. On January 20, UATRE dismissed Ansaloni, stating his dismissal was due to his antisemitic statements.
Numerous public and private entities adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism during the year, including the government of Santiago del Estero Province, according to a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri, Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla, and other government representatives again participated in religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah observances, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches. They often did so virtually or through recorded videos, due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public gatherings.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In January, the NEAB expressed disappointment about the government’s proposal to legalize marijuana, stating the government had disregarded moral boundaries for “mere economic benefit.” The NEAB said it found it to be “shockingly offensive that in a national pandemic crisis” the new administration would put forward this proposal in its first 100 days. The NEAB urged the government to “exercise intelligence and creativity” in finding other beneficial industries for the country. On July 2, the government introduced a bill to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act, which would authorize the legalization of marijuana. The bill sought to establish a provision for the licensing and registration of enterprises operating in the cannabis industry that would allow persons to cultivate, process, distribute, and deliver cannabis for adult use. In October, the NEAB stated it was “deeply concerned” that government involvement in the marijuana business meant the official promotion of marijuana use and development. NEAB officials said they had been voicing their concerns to the Minister of Home Affairs and New Growth Industries Kareem Musa but were still waiting for a formal meeting. The BCC also expressed concern that the government did not “seek and consider input on important moral and societal issues.”
The BCC said that legalizing the cultivation and distribution of marijuana would encourage widespread use of the drug, causing effects on the human body, particularly young people, and was “not a path civil society should choose to take.” In response, Minister Musa said the bill was intended to regulate an already existing industry and, after meeting with the BCC, he said that requirements in the law would prevent the easy accessibility of marijuana to minors. At year’s end, the bill remained pending before parliament.
In July, the BCC expressed “major concern” that actions of the government “further eroded and undermined the Church’s faith” in the existing church-state relationship. The BCC pointed to a statement Prime Minister Briceno made in July blaming the leadership of religious schools for a 10 percent reduction in teachers’ salaries that the government had instituted in June as part of its economic recovery measures. The BCC stated that while it supported the government on salary reduction under the belief that it was for the greater good, assigning blame to the leadership of religious schools was “grossly unfair.” The arrangement between the government and religious groups called for the government to provide 100 percent of salaries for primary school teachers and 70 percent for high school teachers. On a monthly basis, the government made disbursements to religious school officials, who in turn made payments to teachers. In November, the BCC stated that both government and church officials had taken steps to improve the relationship.
Throughout the year, the government held discussions with the BCC, church Senator Benguche, and several other religious leaders on plans regarding new legislation and amendments to existing legislation, as well as COVID-19 pandemic matters. According to the head of the Council of Churches, non-Christian religious groups had not engaged him on communicating their political perspectives, although by law the church senator represents all religious groups. In a July statement, the BCC said that government consultations should not be an “information-sharing exercise, but rather an open dialogue reminiscent of their past relationship.” According to the BCC, the government had not fully taken into account its concerns regarding COVID-19 restrictions on the reopening of churches to in-person worship, and it felt it unsuitable that the government had treated churches in the same manner as businesses. The BCC leadership said discussions with the government on the safest ways to reopen churches had been underway when the government announced in December public health protocol guidelines including adhering to curfews, wearing a mask, or other face covering and social distancing. The BCC also raised with the government what it said was the need for more counselors at the primary and secondary school levels, especially in the context of various difficulties introduced by the pandemic.
In October, the government passed a law rescinding the post of director of health services and, in its stead, created two positions of director of hospital services and principal health inspector. Senator Benguche said church leaders were concerned the government had amended existing legislation to eliminate the position of director of health services and in doing so had bypassed important civil servant protections codified in law. According to Benguche, this was viewed as a violation of the labor rights of the incumbent, Director of Health Services Dr. Marvin Manzanero. Benguche said the religious community was supportive of Dr. Manzanero because of his key leadership role during the COVID-19 pandemic and the professional relationship that it had established with him. While the BCC said it differed from the government’s policies on several issues, it commended the working relationship it had developed with Minister of Education Francis Fonseca and noted that under his leadership, there had been “tremendous improvement” in the comanagement of schools and the composition of church representation on school boards.
Due to COVID-19 restrictive measures, prison authorities suspended religious services and activities for most of the year, but sources stated that corrections officers encouraged private religious observance. Officials from the Catholic Kolbe Foundation stated the organization trained inmate facilitators to lead small group services and that the prison radio station broadcast religious messages to inmates. Authorities allowed inmates to communicate with religious officiants via mail.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious leaders and sources in the MFA reported the government had not completely implemented or enforced the religious freedom law that was passed in 2019, particularly aspects pertaining to the registration requirement, due to the political fluidity in the country and prolonged restrictions related to COVID-19.
Members of the evangelical Protestant community continued to say several smaller religious communities formed congregations that held services at unofficial worship locations and conducted other activities without registering. These smaller communities continued to refuse to register their organizations because, according to sources, they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal information. Sources stated these unregistered groups still could neither own property nor hold bank accounts in their organization’s name; instead, money for a group was generally held in a bank account controlled by the leader’s family.
According to the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations, there were approximately 648 registered groups listed under the requirements of the religious freedom law, compared with 440 groups in 2020, and an additional 75 groups with a registration request in process with the MFA. According to religious leaders, nearly all known religious or spiritual organizations that wished to register with the government had complied with the requirements. Religious groups said the registration process generally took four to six months to complete. In November, MFA officials stated they were working on a system to digitize the registration process to reduce the timeline to one to two months and planned to have the new digital system complete by 2022.
According to press reports in September, evangelical Protestant pastor Luis Aruquipa objected to government efforts to vaccinate the population against COVID-19, stating, “We are against being forced to vaccinate. You have to leave it to free will.” He also quoted a passage from Psalm 119:45: “I will walk in freedom, for I have devoted myself to your commandments.”
In September, evangelical Protestant leaders said they were upset with Vice President David Choquehuanca for “corrupting” the evangelical faith. They said Choquehuanca, who was raised in the faith, used his office to promote a syncretic religion that amalgamates indigenous rituals and evangelical Protestant beliefs.
According to Catholic Church leaders, the government increasingly pressured the Church due to its role in mediating the presidential succession in 2019, when post-electoral unrest led to the resignation of then-president Evo Morales. Catholic leaders said that the government’s public verbal attacks created a hostile atmosphere that affected the perception that many youths had of the Church. Catholic leaders also said the government was delaying international clothing donations and increasing the difficulty of obtaining documentation for incoming missionaries.
On March 13, the BEC released a statement hours after authorities detained former interim president Anez. In their statement, the bishops said that “politics of revenge” and a justice system aligned with the ruling political power “do not create confidence in the people.” The bishops released their message by video, with conference president Bishop Ricardo Centellas reading from a prepared text: “We cannot remain passive while citizens who have served Bolivia, [albeit] with their limitations, are persecuted.”
On August 25, the BEC issued a press statement expressing concern “over the deplorable human rights situation” in the country and “the manipulation of the judicial system by those at the top of the state,” and calling for a summit on justice reform. A Catholic Church representative stated that a few days after the statement was issued, he was summoned by high-ranking government officials who threatened him and ordered him to stop meddling in politics.
On September 23, President Arce delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he accused the Catholic hierarchy of “participating in the breakdown of [the country’s] constitutional order.” While avoiding a specific response to the President’s speech, the leader of the BEC made a November 14 public statement that criticized “threats and words that incite violence” and called for an inclusive, peaceful dialogue that seeks justice and peace in the country.
According to media, on October 29, the government’s ombudsman, Nadia Cruz, and other officials led a march to the BEC’s headquarters, where some protestors vandalized the premises with slogans, including, “They are not pro-life, they are pro-rape” and “rapists and perverse priests.” The protesters were reportedly protesting what they characterized as the meddling of the Catholic Church in convincing an 11-year-old pregnant rape victim not to abort.
Police and media reported the explosion of a crude bomb near the entrance of the La Paz BEC headquarters in the early morning hours of November 24. The explosion caused material damage to the structure but did not result in any injuries. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, many believed the incident was related to the case of the 11-year-old pregnant rape victim. Minister of Government Eduardo del Castillo reported that police had identified two women allegedly responsible for the attack but did not provide any more information, citing the confidential nature of the ongoing investigation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In January, the federal government created the National Registry of Religious Organizations, a voluntary database of religious leaders and entities eligible to receive federal funds and to carry out actions in partnership with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. Social science professor and leader of the Protestantism and Pentecostalism Study Group at the Pontifical Catholic University, Edin Sued Abumanssur, said the program duplicated preexisting databases of religious organizations, and he suggested creation of the new database was an attempt to garner the support of churches in the lead-up to the 2022 presidential election.
In January, the Rio de Janeiro city council created the Parliamentary Front of Religious Freedom. The purpose of the group, composed of 38 city council members, was to discuss strategies to combat religious intolerance in the municipality.
Acting on a Rio de Janeiro State civil police report that said the state had registered 6,700 crimes of religious intolerance from 2015 through 2019, state legislator Martha Rocha established in February a parliamentary commission of inquiry in Rio de Janeiro’s Legislative Assembly to investigate this increasing number and to discuss possible strategies to promote religious freedom.
On March 3, Governor of Sao Paulo State Joao Doria approved a state-level religious freedom law regulating the constitutional principle of free exercise of faith, including imposing fines of up to 87,000 reais ($15,300) for verifiable cases of disturbances of religious ceremonies and cults, vandalism of sacred symbols, and discrimination in schools, such as prohibiting the use of religious attire.
In March, media reported that evangelical Christians and Catholics in Pernambuco State protested the state’s imposition of COVID-19 related limitations on public religious gatherings.
In April, the STF found that government decrees to close churches and other religious temples throughout the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic were constitutional. The decision followed the STF review of Sao Paulo Governor Doria’s decree ordering the closure of religious centers to avoid large crowds. Following the decision, according to press reports, religious groups protested the government’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in Brasilia. In response to the STF decision, in October, the Sao Paulo legislature overturned Governor Doria’s decree, and it declared religious observances and their respective places of worship were essential activities to be maintained in times of crises, including during pandemics and natural disasters, provided that the activity complied with the recommendations of the Ministry of Health.
In December 2020, the city of Porto Alegre inaugurated a Police Office for Combating Intolerance with a mandate to assist victims of prejudice and investigate discrimination, including religious discrimination. As of April, the office had registered 169 occurrences, including eight related to religious discrimination.
Beginning in June, individuals could report religious intolerance in Rio State to the military police’s 190 hotline. The Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance (CCIR), an independent organization comprised of representatives of religious groups, civil society, police, and public prosecutors’ office representatives, was responsible for documenting cases of religious intolerance and assisting victims. CCTR coordinator Ivanir dos Santos highlighted the importance of this new channel, saying that even though victims were already able to report incidents to civil police, the 190 military police hotline was more easily accessible and familiar.
In June, Bahia’s Court of Justice sentenced Edneide Santos de Jesus, a member of the Casa de Oracao Evangelical Church, to monthly court appearances and community service for repeatedly verbally harassing members of a traditional Candomble temple in Camacari, Bahia. The court also found de Jesus guilty of spreading rock salt in front of the Candomble temple to “cast out demons.” The ruling by the Court of Justice was the first ruling of “religious racism” (religious intolerance or prejudice) in the state’s history.
Media reported that in June, during a search for suspected serial killer Lazaro Barbosa, police officers repeatedly entered at least 10 Afro-Brazilian temples in Goias State. Religious leaders filed a complaint alleging that police used force in their entry, pointed weapons at the heads of those present, and examined mobile phones and computers without a court order. The Public Security Secretariat of Goias stated that a task force composed of police officers from Goias, the federal district, and the federal highway police was “working with a single purpose: to guarantee peace to the population of the region and to capture Lazaro Barbosa within the limits of legality.”
In July, a judge on Sao Paulo’s Court of Justice acquitted Juliana Arcanjo Ferreira of charges of domestic violence and bodily harm against her daughter after Ferreira took the 11-year-old to a traditional Candomble rite called a “cure” in October 2020. The girl’s father filed a police report four months after the ceremony accusing Ferreira of assault, following a weekend visit during which he discovered scars on the girl’s body from the rite, which entailed making small superficial incisions on the skin. Medical examiners found that the scars from the ritual were mild and did not cause disability; there was no conclusion that they were made under torture or other cruel means. The judge presiding over the case emphasized that religious freedom was a constitutional right and that the transmission of beliefs to children could not carry criminal consequences if it was done with “respect for life, freedom, and security.” He continued that there could be no justification, other than religious intolerance, for restricting a Candomble ritual.
In August, the government of Sao Paulo State announced the creation of an Online Diversity Police Station, a tool to enable citizens to report crimes of discrimination and intolerance, including those involving religion, through an online platform. Per the tool, after reporting, cases were directed for further investigation to the city of Sao Paulo’s newly redesigned 26-person specialized precinct for crimes of discrimination and intolerance. Alternatively, cases in the interior of Sao Paulo State were directed to the State Criminal Investigation Departments. Authorities said 20 percent of the state’s police officers in these departments had special training in combating and investigating intolerance.
According to the FAMBRAS, women said they continued to face difficulties in being allowed to wear Islamic head coverings such as the hijab when going through security in airports and other public buildings.
In July, President Jair Bolsonaro met Beatrix von Storch, a German parliamentarian and lawmaker of the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD). CONIB representatives criticized the welcoming of Storch, saying that the AfD was a party that downplayed Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust. According to media reports, however, Storch’s official visit did not include any discussion of either Nazism or the Holocaust.
In March, Roberto Jefferson, leader of the Brazilian Labor Party, posted on Instagram, “Baal, Satanic deity, Canaanites and Jews sacrificed children to receive their sympathy. Today, history repeats itself.” CONIB said in a statement that Jefferson’s post constituted “a crime of racism, with an increased penalty for having been committed through a social network.” For an unrelated matter in August, authorities charged Jefferson with belonging to a criminal organization opposing democracy. He remained in jail, pending trial through the end of year.
In Maranhao State, Afro-Brazilian religious institutions and activists working to counter religious intolerance, together with the public defender, the state prosecutor, and the Order of Attorneys in Maranhao, met in July to discuss strategies to end attacks on terreiros. According to the State Secretariat for Racial Equality, terreiros, including the Pai Lindomar Temple, had suffered increasingly frequent attacks for several years, despite military police presence in the Anjo da Guarda neighborhood where the temple was located in the state’s capital of Sao Luis. For example, on average there were five complaints of religious intolerance per year, but in two months of 2021, four complaints of intolerance were filed.
In June, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Public Ministry of Santa Catarina State (MPSC) shelved an investigation into possible illegal acts by history professor Wandercy Pugliesi. In 2020, the Liberal Party pressured Pugliesi to step down as a candidate for a local town council election in Pomerode due to his association with neo-Nazi symbols and for not being ideologically aligned with the party. Pugliesi had a large, tiled swastika symbol in his personal pool and named his son Adolf; police seized Nazi-related materials from him in 1994. In June, Pugliesi’s lawyers requested that the Public Prosecutor’s Office shelve the case after Pugliesi provided photos showing that the symbol in the swimming pool had been removed. In September, a member of the Superior Council of the MPSC requested that the Center for Confronting Racial Crimes and Intolerance study the case prior to shelving it. According to media, while there was no firm timeline for the study, upon completion the MPSC’s Superior Council would consider the results of the study and whether to recommence the investigation.
In August, federal police launched Operation White Rose, a reference to the historical White Rose anti-Nazi movement in World War II Germany, to address crimes of discrimination or prejudice based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, as well as the placement of Nazi symbols. Documents in a database of Safernet Brazil – an NGO that promotes human rights on social networks and monitors radical websites – provided the basis for an operation against a man who made discriminatory comments against categories of individuals that included Jews and Catholics. According to press reports, the man also displayed Nazi symbols, declared himself to be a Nazi, and disseminated content related to antisemitism and idolatry of Nazism and fascism, with the intention of inciting violence.
During the year, civil police and the Public Ministry initiated Operation Bergon (named after a French nun who helped rescue Jewish children during World War II) to investigate the spread of hatred and threats of violence on social media, including against Jews. In December, civil police and prosecutors launched a series of actions, serving four arrest warrants and 31 search and seizure warrants across the states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Norte, Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio do Sul.
The NGO Center for Articulation of Marginalized Populations reported Afro-Brazilian victims of religious intolerance in the state of Rio de Janeiro continued to view police and the judiciary as being indifferent, in general, to attacks on Afro-Brazilian places of worship. It cited what it said was a lack of investigations and arrests in these cases and that offenders were rarely held accountable.
In April, the STF declared unconstitutional a 2015 Amazonas State law requiring schools and libraries to keep at least one copy of the Bible in their collections on the grounds that it violated the principles of state secularism. Following the ruling, some postings on social media stated the STF had banned the Bible from schools and public libraries, allegations that the government said were false.
In September, acting Rio State Governor Claudio Castro declared the Terreiro de Gomeia (Gomeia Temple) in Duque de Caxias an historical and cultural heritage site. Candomble followers founded the Gomeia Temple in the 1950s. The declaration emphasized the value of Afro-Brazilian religious practices.
On January 21, municipalities around the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. In Rio Grande do Sul, civil police distributed an educational booklet on religious intolerance, including information on what encompasses crimes of religious intolerance and how to report incidents.
On May 25, the Sao Paulo Secretary of Justice, through the Inter-Religious Forum for a Culture of Peace and Freedom of Faith, promoted a webinar in partnership with UNESCO to discuss freedom of religion as an integral effort to promote peace and tolerance in the country and worldwide. The event included representatives from a variety of faiths including Afro-Brazilian religions, Islam, and Judaism.
In May, Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly Caucus of Religious Freedom representatives held a Sao Paulo State Religious Freedom Week, a series of 16 webinars to promote freedom of religion and tolerance, with the participation of various civil society groups. Assembly deputy Damaris Moura, who led the promotion for the week’s events, said, “Defending religious freedom for all is a fundamental right constitutionally guaranteed, but still with practical problems. Therefore, it is always necessary to alert, raise awareness, and prevent.” The President of the Legislative Assembly, deputy Carlao Pignatari, defined religious freedom as “freedom to profess any religion [and to] hold services and [practice] traditions related to beliefs,” and he emphasized that religious beliefs should not have “direct influence on the formulation of public policies.” Approximately 1,000 persons attended the opening event of the week, held at the Legislative Assembly.
The State Secretariat of Human Rights in Espirito Santo State organized a State Week of Combating Religious Intolerance from January 18 to 21. Programming included a virtual educational campaign on the secretariat’s website, a roundtable on religious intolerance with inmates from the Linhares Detention and Rehabilitation Center, and two seminars on religious intolerance that included speakers representing Catholicism, Protestantism, and Afro-Brazilian religions as well as the State Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In March, the government announced a mandatory lockdown on Santiago and 20 other cities during the weekends in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to media, Bishop of Punta Arenas Bernardo Miguel Bastres, whose Catholic diocese includes the southernmost regions of the country, criticized the measure and called for “civil disobedience,” adding that the local health situation was different from the capital. Bastres said it was also necessary to consider that the national government restrictions did not contribute to the spiritual needs of the faithful. In response to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference called on the government to engage in a dialogue on freedom of worship and religion. According to media, on March 14, the government modified its COVID-19 restrictions, announcing that Catholic masses and other religious gatherings would be allowed and that the maximum numbers of attendees would vary based on a region’s level of COVID-19 infection rates.
On September 3, Vice Minister of the Secretariat General of the Presidency Maximo Pavez and ONAR Director Jeremias Medina met with religious leaders and announced changes to visitor capacity that allowed 250 participants at indoor religious gatherings (or 1,000 participants if all had a “mobility pass” with proof of COVID-19 vaccination) and 500 participants in outdoor religious gatherings (5,000 if all had a mobility pass). Pavez said, “Freedom of worship is a fundamental right.”
On June 2, the Chile-Palestine Inter-Parliamentary Group in the Chamber of Deputies drafted a BDS bill. Lawmaker Sergio Gahona – one of the bill’s drafters – and other parliamentarians stated that the bill would prevent human rights violations in Israel-occupied territories. Both the CJCH and the Chilean Community of Israel, the latter organization whose members live in Israel, condemned the bill, stating it “creates a clearly hostile environment against the members of the Jewish community in our country, which is reflected in various forms of aggression and antisemitism, which have increased alarmingly in recent weeks.”
On June 29, the Chamber of Deputies approved a resolution stating its absolute rejection of any types of discrimination and any act of tolerance coming from authorities and candidates for public office. The resolution also called on mayor of Recoleta Municipality and then presidential candidate Daniel Jadue, who is of Palestinian origin, to “publicly and categorically deny the statements made in the biographical sketch of his high school yearbook, which classifies him as antisemitic.” According to media, in the yearbook, Jadue wrote that the best gift they could give him was a “Jew to target.” Jadue did not respond to the resolution. Jadue previously accused Jews of controlling the country’s media and referred to the Jewish community as the “Zionist community.” At year’s end, the draft BDS bill remained under consideration in the Constitution and Legislation Committee of the Chamber of Deputies.
In August, ONAR hosted a virtual symposium entitled, “How Does the State Recognize the Spirituality of Our Native Communities?,” which addressed religious freedom of the country’s indigenous communities. ONAR Director Medina described the symposium as a point of convergence between ancestral spirituality and Chilean society, highlighting ONAR’s efforts to promote religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Speakers included academics and representatives of the Mapuche and Aymara communities.
On September 28, President Pinera and First Lady Morel, along with several cabinet members, the Director of ONAR, and key members of the Jewish community, participated in a Tefilah prayer service in observance of the country’s national independence month. During the service, CJCH President Gorodischer called on congress to draft and pass enhanced legislation to improve protections against hate crimes and to strengthen the antidiscrimination law. He encouraged the government to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. There was no government decision regarding the request to adopt the IHRA’s definition by year’s end.
On September 18, President Pinera and leaders of the legislative and judicial branches attended an ecumenical Thanksgiving service (Te Deum) celebrated in observance of the country’s Independence Day. Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Santiago Monsignor Celestino Aos led the service in the Metropolitan Cathedral.
In September, ONAR and the Social Organizations Division, an agency of the Ministry General Secretariat of Government, jointly conducted in-person training for leaders of religious organizations to provide tools to strengthen engagement between religious institutions and civil society organizations. In September, ONAR also held a nondenominational symposium commemorating the educational and value-shaping contributions that the Bible has had in society, including the role of translation and interpretation. In October, ONAR held several symposia on religious freedom to commemorate Religious Freedom Month. On October 28, it cohosted an event on human dignity and religious freedom with the Argentine Council on Religious Freedom. ONAR designated October 31 as the National Day of Evangelical Churches.
On October 28-29, ONAR cohosted the First Forum on Human Dignity and Religious Freedom in the Southern Cone, with Brigham Young University and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile Center for Law and Religion, which was open to members of all religious groups. The forum included in-person events in Santiago and virtual access for participants in other countries in the region. The forum’s goals included reaffirming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reinforcing the principles of religious freedom in the Southern Cone.
ONAR continued to engage with local authorities in the communities affected by attacks on churches in several regions of the country, including the Araucania and Santiago Regions, to rebuild the damaged churches. ONAR helped the affected churches report threats to police and pressed for increased police monitoring and patrols of religious buildings in the region.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
On April 7, the Constitutional Court determined that an adolescent member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had the right to refuse a blood transfusion for medical purposes due to her religious beliefs and instead receive alternate methods of treatment. The decision was made in relation to a 2020 case in which a hospital and the Administrative Court of the Cundinamarca Region had previously determined that blood transfusions could be required to be administered to patients in cases of “extreme urgency.”
On May 21, the Constitutional Court reiterated that government officials should refrain from actions that could be interpreted as violating the separation of church and state and instructed the Presidential Counsel for Communication to ensure that government authorities use social media appropriately.
On July 22, the Constitutional Court ruled that the right to euthanasia – recognized in 1997 – applies not only to terminal patients, but also to those with “intense physical or mental suffering from bodily injury or serious and incurable disease.” In response to the ruling, Catholic Church officials described euthanasia as a “serious offense to the dignity of life.”
The MOI reported there were 9,032 formally recognized religious organizations in the country at the end of the year, compared with 8,214 at the end of 2020. It received 723 applications for formal recognition of religious organizations, compared with 393 in 2020; approved 595, compared with 343 in 2020; and deferred or denied 15, compared with 12 in 2020. The MOI stated that the reason it deferred and denied petitions was because the applying entity failed to meet the legal requirements and/or because it failed to provide missing information during the year. The MOI stated it continued to review the remaining applications. According to the MOI, 99.4 percent of the applications were from evangelical Christian churches and the rest were from Muslim and Jewish entities. The MOI continued to give 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 could resubmit an application at any time, and the MOI indicated there was no waiting period to reapply.
The DRA provided support to the 32 departments to implement the National Public Policy of Religious Freedom and Worship adopted in 2018 to provide guarantees to exercise freedom of religion and worship. The policy also formally recognized religions and their affiliated organizations as managers of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It further guaranteed coordination between the regions and the different levels of government to promote peacebuilding, reconciliation, and forgiveness with a view to recognizing victims of conflict in the country. As part of the initiative to support the policy, the DRA promoted the implementation of 90 public measures on religious freedom during the year. These included public campaigns to promote religious tolerance and nondiscrimination as well as efforts to strengthen communication between religious groups and government institutions at the national and regional levels. The DRA also provided technical assistance to officials by creating a Manual for Territorial Religious Liaisons containing guidelines to promote the protection of religious freedom. The DRA additionally provided guidelines to implement the Comprehensive Public Policy on Religious Freedom and Religious Groups for territorial entities. Passed in 1994, the policy regulates the right to freedom of religion and worship present in the constitution and addresses church-state relations and the legal status of non-Catholic religions.
During the year, the DRA created religious freedom liaison positions – government representatives to serve as liaisons between religious organizations and local and regional governments. These religious liaisons were appointed in 29 departments, including in the municipalities of Chinchina, Caldas; Yopal, Casanare; Tierra Alta, Cordoba; Manizales, Caldas; Pasto, Narino; and the Departments of Antioquia, Boyaca, and Meta.
The DRA took steps to implement an international cooperation agreement with the UNDP signed in 2020 to study the religious community and gather relevant information regarding the characteristics, needs, challenges, and contributions of religious groups. The goal was to implement public policies on religious freedom in a more detailed way and articulate actions between the religious community and the public sector to achieve common objectives. During the year, the study involved the departments of Bolivar, Norte de Santander, Risaralda, and Valle del Cauca. The project conducted 1,436 surveys that examined social, cultural, educational, coexistence, and peace and reconciliation elements. According to the survey data, the religious community assisted vulnerable populations such as victims of conflict, women, the elderly, children, adolescents, and migrants. The agreement with the UNDP also supported the training of religious community employees and public officials to focus on respect for religious freedom and empowering religious groups in the exercise of their rights. By year’s end, 2,000 persons had taken the training.
According to the DRA and religious leaders, the MOI continued implementing its public policy goal of raising awareness of the role of religious groups in supporting victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations, as well as strengthening interreligious cooperation and tolerance at the local level through structured interfaith dialogues and technical assistance. In May, the DRA created a dialogue commission with the Catholic Church to fulfill a legal mandate that a roundtable be created with the Church to adopt public policies concerning the Church’s status. The DRA also promoted more than 200 interreligious engagements through committees, roundtables, and councils, and it led one training workshop on the legal framework of religious freedom. On June 25, the DRA held an educational campaign through digital media on religious freedom, tolerance, nondiscrimination, and stigmatization or persecution for religious reasons. It also supported an interreligious promotional campaign called “As Born Between Us” to support migrants in the country.
President Duque commemorated National Day of Religious Freedom on July 4, when he spoke in support of outreach and initiatives highlighting religious freedom. By year’s end, 90 municipalities had adopted public policies on religious freedom. The policies included public campaigns to promote religious tolerance and nondiscrimination as well as efforts to strengthen communication between religious groups and government institutions at the national and regional levels. Religious freedom and respect for religious groups were included in new territorial development plans for 2020-23 in 16 of the country’s 32 departments and 24 municipalities. The national outreach programs continued to prioritize integrating the religious community into public policy discussions, including on how to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the increasing number of Venezuelans residing in the country, and how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government supplied hundreds of aid packages to humanitarian and religious programs.
The Ministry of National Education urged preschool, elementary, and middle school educational institutions to foster peaceful resolution to conflicts involving religious belief.
According to religious groups, individuals continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from military service on religious grounds. Religious leaders expressed continued concern regarding a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. Religious organizations reported mixed enforcement of the conscientious objector law, stating that some objectors were still required to serve in the military, although they were exempt from carrying a weapon. The Ministry of Defense reported that by year’s end, it had approved 61 of 112 applications seeking conscientious objector status on religious grounds.
The CJCC continued to express concern about antisemitic rhetoric and actions on social media after the CJCC met with a presidential candidate in May as part of a series of meetings with all presidential candidates. For example, social media included comments stating the Jewish community was “conspiring with communism” and committing “treason against the homeland.” In November, Colombian National Police (CNP) cadets from the Simon Bolivar Police Academy in Tulua wore Nazi attire and displayed paraphernalia with swastikas at a ceremony the police claimed was to honor Germany. President Duque condemned the incident, stating that any demonstration that uses or refers to symbols associated with those responsible for the Holocaust was unacceptable. The Defense Ministry similarly denounced this act, and the police dismissed the head of the academy. The national police suspended two senior officers at the academy.
The Colombian National Police, through the Protection and Special Services Directorate, continued to provide security for religious sites, and the National Protection Unit of the MOI provided personal security to individuals deemed at risk.
In connection with the observance of National Day of Religious Freedom, the MOI and regional governments held forums and other events to educate the public on the significance of the holiday and the new public policy to build bridges with religious organizations. On July 7, President Duque met with youth representatives of the country’s main religious communities and organizations. During the meeting, the youth representatives signed a pact to promote the Integral Public Policy of Religious Freedom that advocates youth supporting the common purpose of religious freedom. President Duque highlighted the inclusion of religious freedom in the constitution, stating that all religions and belief systems have the same rights, freedoms, and obligations. The MOI also launched the first knowledge repository of interreligious initiatives, a formal mechanism established to recognize and highlight practices of religious and social entities and to support the social, cultural, and educational work of religions entities and their organizations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The time limit to enact a draft 2009 bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state expired in September 2020, and the Legislative Assembly did not advance a new bill on this issue during the year.
In June 17, the Legislative Assembly passed its first vote on a public employment bill that included an article on conscientious objection. Some legislators, including those belonging to the government-affiliated Citizen Action Party and the National Liberation Party, objected to the inclusion of the article and appealed before the Constitutional Court. On August 1, the Constitutional Court upheld as constitutional the article on conscientious objection. Some religious groups had requested this provision to allow public employees to be exempted from participating in government-required LGBTQ+ training courses. Another first vote, required to pass the bill, was pending at year’s end.
Some non-Catholic leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, particularly regarding registration processes. Members of Protestant groups registered as secular associations continued to say they preferred a separate registration process that would specifically cover church construction and operation, permits to organize events, and pastoral access to hospitals and prisons for members of non-Catholic religious groups. These Protestant groups continued to seek legislative reform to allow these changes through the passage of a religious freedom bill under legislative review since 2018. In the case of the Catholic Church, the government continued to address such concerns through the special legal recognition afforded the Church under canon law.
During the year, the Constitutional Chamber received 12 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at educational institutions, Catholic institutions, or public places, compared with 24 claims in 2020. Of the 12 claims presented in during the year, seven were dismissed, three were accepted, and two were unresolved through year’s end. Reportedly, the decrease in numbers of claims was partly due to COVID-19 restrictions on in-person learning during the year. The court dismissed seven claims due to insufficient evidence proving discrimination or because it found no basis for claiming discrimination. In some of these dismissed cases, the claimants stated they experienced discrimination because of the government’s closure of places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic and because of a pandemic-related restriction limiting the number of attendees at a religious service to 200 worshippers, regardless of the size of the venue. For the purposes of limits on gatherings, religious organizations fell under the same category as sports, cultural and academic activities; the 200-person limit applied equally to all groups. The court dismissed the complaints, stating the pandemic-related restrictions were applied to all places of worship for health reasons.
Two claims pertaining to a requirement that public employees attend a course on equal rights for LGBTQ+ persons remained unresolved through year’s end. The chamber ruled in favor of three other claims. In one case, a Jewish municipal employee filed a complaint seeking authorization to observe the Sabbath on Saturday. In another case, the chamber ruled in favor of a minor claimant who opted out of a religious course, stating the minor could not be obligated to take an unrequired course.The parents of children attending public schools filed the third claim against the Ministry of Education because the ministry had not replaced the school’s religion teacher several months after his retirement. In its ruling, the chamber ordered the hiring of a new teacher of religion.
The government again included financial support for the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups in its annual budget. It earmarked approximately 32.6 million colones ($51,100), 23 million colones ($36,000) for the Catholic Church and 9.5 million colones ($14,900) for evangelical Christian groups, for various projects requested by the religious groups, including funds to make improvements at churches and parish buildings in different parts of the country. This total funding of 32.6 million colones ($51,100) for religious groups was included in supplemental budgets for the year and compared with 55 million colones ($86,200) earmarked in the 2020 budget. According to a legislative aide, the decrease in allocation for religious groups was because of the overall decrease in the budget due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. A semiautonomous government institution again sold lottery tickets, using the proceeds to support social programs sponsored by religious groups.
In June, Marco A. Fernandez Picado became the new director of religious education in the Ministry of Public Education. According to Fernandez Picado, because most classes were virtual during the year due to continuing COVID-19 restrictions, there was no implementation of a 2019 Ministry of Education directive stating school directors should make decisions on whether to place religious images in educational institutions based on “mutual respect for the rights and liberties of all, as well as the values and principles under which the education system functions.”
According to political observers and opinion polls, in the lead-up to the 2018 national election, religious issues such as same-sex marriage were polarizing campaign topics that impacted voters’ decisions. According to press reports, during the February 2022 election campaign, candidates tended to avoid raising these topics, likely to avoid repeating such polarization.
Representatives of political parties that defined themselves as evangelical Christian continued to occupy 14 of the country’s 57 legislative seats, and evangelical Christian parties contested the municipal election in February. No evangelical Christian mayors were elected, but 38 evangelical Christians were elected as representatives in 82 municipal governments. The president of the Evangelical Alliance again instructed pastors to refrain from electoral politics, while Catholic leaders continued to defend the right of the Catholic Church to engage in the political process. At year’s end, 30 political parties had registered for the 2022 general election; seven of these parties stated a Catholic or evangelical Christian religious affiliation.
Religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Evangelical Alliance, continued to state their opposition to same-sex partnerships and to legislation passed and implemented in 2020 that recognizes same-sex marriages, citing moral grounds. In July, evangelical Christian groups belonging to the Evangelical Alliance, including its president, organized a prayer night broadcast on radio “in favor of families, life, and children.” Other Christian radio stations joined the program.
Abortion continued to be a frequent topic of public debate involving religious groups. According to a December 2019 executive order requiring hospitals to develop protocols for doctors to perform an abortion when the life and health of the woman was in danger, abortion was permitted in such cases in accordance with the penal code. The order also allowed health personnel to refuse to participate in abortion procedures for religious reasons. Media reported that opposition of the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups to abortions continued. From March 22 to April 4, legislator Nidia Cespedes of evangelical Christian party New Republic (Nueva Republica), protested barefoot in the Legislative Assembly’s plenary room, expressing her opposition to a proposed bill decriminalizing abortion, which was later introduced in August. The same month, the Catholic Church organized its members to sign a letter requesting the government keep abortion illegal. By year’s end, the Legislative Assembly did not vote on the bill.
In July, the Ministry of Public Education organized a National Week of Religious Education to present a preview of the ministry’s new religious education programs to be offered as part of basic general education and diversified education levels. As a result of the July meeting, the ministry drafted an Interreligious Declaration for a Religious Education for A Culture of Peace, which the ministry presented at a Ministry of Education conference on September 22.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Many religious groups said that despite constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict the activities of some religious groups, leaders, and followers, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely. Religious groups also said the government applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner to target religious groups and individuals whose views were not in line with the government’s. Some religious groups continued to express concerns that the constitution, in effect since February 2019, significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief and diluted references to freedom of conscience, separating it from freedom of religion.
In its annual Watch List, Open Doors, a self-described nondenominational, ecumenical Christian organization, reported a continued rise in the persecution of Christians in the country. It attributed the continued rise to the government’s “highly restrictive measures against churches deemed to be opponents of the regime especially non-registered Protestant churches.” The report noted the government used the COVID-19 crisis “as a pretext to hinder church and community activities, monitor church leaders, make arbitrary arrests, confiscate private property and impose extortion fees.”
CSW reported security forces targeted religious leaders amid unprecedented nationwide public protests that began on July 11 and led to state-directed violence, detention, and harassment against religious figures from multiple faith communities. According to CSW, security officers arrested Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, pastor of the unregistered nondenominational Monte de Sion Church, and his teenage son in the town of Palma Soriano during one of several peaceful protests across the country on July 11. Authorities charged Rosales Fajardo with committing a series of crimes, including “disrespect” and “public disorder.” He said that while he was in detention, guards subjected him to a brutal beating. Following his December 20-21 trial, Rosales Fajardo was found guilty of the charges and awaited sentencing at year’s end. A sentence could entail up to 10 years in prison. Rosales Fajardo’s son was released following a week in captivity, after his mother paid a fine. Government authorities had previously targeted Rosales Fajardo, including as far back as in 2012 when they seized his church property.
According to HRW, either a state security agent or a member of rapid response, government-affiliated paramilitary forces beat Catholic priest Jose Castor Alvarez Devesa with a bat while he tried to assist an injured protester during a July 11 demonstration in Camaguey. Security forces detained him when he sought medical attention for his injuries. The government later released Alvarez Devesa, but he remained under investigation through year’s end for incitement to commit crimes, and with his movements restricted.
CSW also reported two other pastors detained on July 11 in Matanzas, Yeremi Blanco Ramirez and Yarian Sierra Madrigal, spent two weeks in jail, with no means to communicate with their families, lawyers, or friends before their release to house arrest following international pressure. Both men received fines for joining the protests and remained under police surveillance through year’s end. While they were in custody, a landlord evicted the family of Pastor Sierra Madrigal from their home after state security pressured the landlord, according to CSW. Later, authorities forced both men to sign a document that would justify their imprisonment should they participate in future protests. Also on July 11, security forces detained, released, and later interrogated and threatened with charges of incitement Pastor Yusniel Perez Montejo of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba.
During a visit to the country on September 9, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, met with President Miguel Diaz-Canel. The Associated Press reported that state media published images of the meeting but provided no details on the topics discussed. On his departure from the country the following day, Cardinal O’Malley wrote in his blog that he had spoken to Diaz-Canel about the July 11 protests “and appealed for clemency for those involved in the demonstrations in a nonviolent way.”
The Global Liberty Alliance reported authorities continued to subject Free Yorubas leaders and members to additional arbitrary detentions, threats, fines, physical violence, and verbal harassment. According to observers, although Yoruba and other African syncretic religious groups were given latitude to practice their beliefs as individuals, the government selectively recognized groups and leaders based on their favorable view of the government. The NGO reported that in March, security forces beat and robbed a Free Yorubas youth leader, Dairon Hernandez Perez, outside his home as he returned from attending a religious event. Hernandez Perez said members of the security forces and members of the government’s Black Berets, commonly described as shock troops and serving as a rapid response brigade, beat him extensively, damaged religious items, confiscated money, and threatened him with imprisonment for “pre-criminal dangerousness.”
In September, the Global Liberty Alliance sought precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of four members of the Free Yorubas, who faced extended pretrial detention after their arrests following the July 11 protests. According to the NGO, Donaida Perez Paserio, Loreto Hernandez Garcia, Lisdiani Rodriguez Isaac, and Lisdani Rodriguez Isaac had faced repression from security forces over many years because the government did not recognize the Free Yorubas as a religious organization. Prosecutors in Santa Clara cited a range of charges against the Free Yorubas detainees, including disobedience, public disorder, and assault or attack, and they sought eight-to-10-year combined prison sentences for the four. At year’s end, all four were awaiting trial.
The Global Liberty Alliance recorded several other instances of Free Yorubas members being detained and fined for peaceful protests in July. Police fined Elizabeth Cintron 3,000 pesos ($120) in August, thereby making her ineligible to stand trial. Prior to paying the fine, Cintron was in pretrial detention. Also in August, police forced Dayron Dadis Lorrando to pay a 1,000-peso fine ($40), which is approximately half the official minimum monthly wage, at a Santa Clara police station, a decision that denied him his right to due process.
According to media, in May, authorities released Christian human rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro after he completed his three and a half-year sentence. Diaz Paseiro said he was occasionally placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and deprived of water. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.
In May, security forces arrested Pastor Yoel Demetrio, of the Cuban Apostolic Movement in Las Tunas, after eight security agents raided his church. He was later released with a warning that he could face criminal charges for contempt. In March, he had reported that unidentified individuals threw stones at his church in Las Tunas while members of his congregation held a prayer vigil inside. Demetrio told reporters that authorities arbitrarily fined him several times, with no explanation of the reason for the fines.
Media reported police continued to detain members of the Ladies in White. Throughout the year, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez reported she faced repeated arrests and short detentions, although the organization had suspended much of its activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group’s youngest member, Sissi Abascal Zamora, received a six-year sentence from a municipal court for participating in a July 11 protest. The court found her guilty of contempt, hitting a police officer, and public disorder.
According to media, the potential for additional widespread protests in November led to increased repression against religious leaders, including the staging of “acts of repudiation” in front of their homes. CSW condemned the targeting of religious leaders, which it said was a government attempt to block the November peaceful protests. CSW reported police and state security agents summoned and interrogated many Protestant and Catholic religious leaders to intimidate and dissuade them from participating in the peaceful marches called by civil society groups. The ORA delivered a direct warning to Catholic Church officials that three priests in Camaguey, Alberto Reyes Pias, Jose Castor Alvarez, and Rolando Montes de Oca, would be arrested if they participated in any protests. One of the priests, Alberto Reyes, vowed to join the protests saying, “The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of freedom, it speaks of justice, it speaks of truth… If being arrested is the price of being true to the teachings of the gospel, so be it.” Multiple media outlets reported that on the morning of the proposed march on November 15, a group of CCP officials and sympathizers orchestrated an act of repudiation at the residence of the Archbishop of Camaguey, where Father Reyes was staying, along with Archbishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez. According to press reports, the government used acts of repudiation that directed participants to verbally abuse and intimidate government critics so the critics would not leave their homes. Because of the crowds at the protests and the presence of state security officers, the priests and many other religious leaders remained in their homes on November 15.
The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights registered at least 30 repressive acts against leaders and laypersons associated with various religious groups for showing their support for the proposed November marches. Government actions included multiple acts of repudiation, police surveillance, internet cuts, and the harassment of the Mother Superior of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Nadieska Almeida, whom government supporters harassed on November 15 while she was walking to visit a friend in Havana.
According to CSW, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government targeted religious leaders by accusing them of hoarding goods, which many religious leaders provided to needy members of their communities. CSW reported that in January, police arrested and detained Pastor Karel Parra Rosabal, the leader of an unregistered Apostolic Church in Las Tunas, on what the NGO said was a false charge of hoarding. The pastor, who operated a small bike repair shop, was reportedly told by authorities he was being arrested “so that you learn that illegal churches in Cuba are not allowed.” Authorities stated he had too many tools for his business without providing evidence that he had acquired them legally. After 10 days in detention, authorities released him, and prosecutors dropped the charges against him. They did not return his confiscated equipment, which he needed to provide for his family.
According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion. Several religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await decisions from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994. Despite a 2019 letter from Cuban Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City stating the denomination was “welcome” in the country, the MOJ had not approved the Church’s registration by year’s end.
Representatives of several religious organizations and religious freedom organizations said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups. They also said the MOJ’s determinations of ineligibilities for registration sometimes included the assertion that another group already had identical or similar objectives, which these representatives said was a pretext the government used to control and favor certain factions of a religious denomination or one religious group’s activities over others.
Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference. CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions limiting house churches to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on them.
At year’s end, Soka Gakkai continued to be the only Buddhist group registered with the government, and the Islamic League was the only registered Islamic group.
According to religious leaders and former inmates, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study. Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles, crucifixes, rosary beads, and other religious items, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason.
CSW and religious leaders reported that the government, through the Ministry of Interior, continued to systematically plant informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants, or by sending informants to infiltrate a church. The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees. As a result, CSW said many leaders continued to practice self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching. Catholic and Protestant church leaders, both in and outside the government-recognized Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), continued to report frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials. These church leaders said the purpose of the visits was to intimidate and to remind them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups.
Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be threatened if the house church leaders continued their activities.
According to news reports, authorities continued to harass Pastor Alain Toledano, a member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba. Toledano said state security officials arrested him for “propagating the COVID pandemic” in August, when he said he held a socially distanced service. In the weeks that followed, Toledano reported state security cited or interrogated at least eight members of his church for showing him support.
During the year, the government used internet laws restricting freedom of expression of independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights. In addition, CSW continued to report the government used social media to harass and defame religious leaders, including Facebook posts and online editorials publicly targeting religious leaders or groups. In most instances, accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security. According to the annual report of the U.S.-based human rights NGO Freedom House, the country had one of the most restrictive media environments in the world, including in terms of internet freedom such as restrictions on networks, blocking of social networks and websites, and the repression and arrest of individuals for using social media networks. For example, according to HRW, on August 17, the government responded to the July 11 protests by issuing Decree Law 35, which further criminalized online content deemed to be critical of the government or that disseminated “content that violates the constitutional, social and economic precepts of the State” or incites acts that affect public order.
In July, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement calling for dialogue and imploring the government to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. In November, the Conference of Cuban Religious and Catholic leaders released statements condemning state intimidation of religious leaders, as well as what they termed the systematic repression of voices who criticize the government.
In May, 34 individuals and organizations signed a letter addressed to Cuba’s Chief of Mission at its embassy in Washington, raising concerns about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief taking place under two decree laws (349 and 370) that limit freedom of expression either through artistic means or online. The letter called for the repeal of the two laws and highlighted the case of independent journalist Yoel Suarez, who regularly reported on religious freedom issues. During the year, state security agents summoned Suarez for multiple interrogations, threatened him with criminal charges, and questioned his wife, reportedly to pressure her to convince him to abandon his work.
According to CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature continued, primarily in rural areas. Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles, including bureaucratic obstruction and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on importing computers and electronic devices, prevented them from importing religious materials and donated goods. In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether. According to the U.S.-based Patmos Institute, a civil society organization focusing on religious freedom and interreligious dialogue, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014. Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.
The Catholic Church and several government-recognized Protestant groups continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and to operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center, where participants sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.
According to media, government officials frequently instigated or did not investigate harassment of religious figures and institutions. Although most cases of what CSW defined as religious persecution were directed toward Christians, CSW also reported that religious minorities were also likely to be victims of religious persecution. Patmos continued to report that Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups.
Muslim community representatives said the country’s small Muslim community was subject to discrimination. The government denied a Muslim woman permission to travel abroad for urgent medical care, a decision she said she believed was linked to her affiliation with an unregistered religious group. According to CSW, Yusdevlin Olivera Nunez was prohibited from travelling due to a five-year sentence of restricted liberty she received upon joining the unregistered Cuban Association for the Dissemination of Islam. At year’s end, Olivera Nunez – known as Mercy Olivera – had not received travel documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She said the treatment needed for her medical conditions was not available in the country.
Before her detention following the July 11 protests, Free Yorubas President Perez Paseiro and member Yaimara Reyes Soler filed a legal complaint in June in Santa Clara, stating the government had committed dozens of religious freedom violations against members of their group. The petition stated authorities had erroneously and intentionally determined the Free Yorubas to be a political entity rather than an association of Yoruba believers and that it forbade them from observing traditional practices such as wearing garments or head coverings in accordance with their faith. Court officials initially refused to even accept the legal filing and by year’s end had not acted upon the complaint.
While some religious leaders reported that access to broadcast media had marginally improved during the year, several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.
According to CSW, while movement to, from, and within the country was again highly restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious travelers said they continued to experience higher levels of scrutiny than others and were often denied freedom of movement, including traveling to religious gatherings outside the country. Patmos reported that immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of their incoming and outgoing travel.
According to CSW, during the year there were no reported cases of the ORA and immigration officials targeting foreign visitors by denying them religious visas. CSW attributed the change to the government’s overall closure of borders to tourists as part of its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Reportedly because of COVID-19-related restrictions on internal movement, government agencies continued to refuse to recognize changes in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to new churches or parishes. These restrictions, not lifted until October, made it difficult or impossible for relocating pastors to obtain government services, including housing. Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.
According to media, religious discrimination against students continued to be a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and CCP officials encouraging and participating in bullying of students belonging to religious groups perceived as being critical of the government.
According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools. These leaders said religious groups with connections to the government and willing to participate in government events were allowed to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before-and-after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer university-level degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.
Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the courses of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs because their religion prohibited them from political involvement.
On January 27, hundreds of Catholics, including bishops, religious, and laypersons, issued a public appeal for citizens to begin to take control of the future of their country. The appeal stated, “The Cuban people, although slowly, have been overcoming and unlearning helplessness.… This is a very important path to empowerment and recovery of social self-esteem. It is important that we come to feel stronger, that we convince ourselves that we can act and live without being paralyzed by fear, so that we come to express ourselves freely, to seek the good and justice while preserving peace, and to be critical of our reality, because in fact, it is the duty of everyone to contribute to the building of a new Cuba.”
According to international media, despite increased shortages of food, medicine, and other essential items, authorities greatly restricted many religious organizations’ ability to receive and distribute humanitarian assistance. While the government allowed Caritas to continue providing food and other goods to the needy, it did not allow many smaller religious groups and charities that were not part of the government-recognized CCC to provide aid. Other religious leaders also said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas.
Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs. Other religious groups reported government restrictions varied and were largely based on the government’s perceptions of the “political pliancy” of each religious group. Religious leaders continued to report government opposition to and interference in religious groups’ providing pastoral services.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious leaders said the Human Rights Secretariat’s registration process implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic remained efficient. A Human Rights Secretariat official said the secretariat would fully implement an online registration system by year’s end after digitalizing all religious organizations’ documents to make the process more convenient for end-users. According to a Human Rights Secretariat official, a total 5,131 religious groups were registered during the year, compared with 5,007 groups registered in 2020. The secretariat official said there were approximately 195 pending registrations and that the registration processing time continued to average 30 days, similar to 2020.
Religious leaders continued to express concerns about the absence of a specific reference to religious volunteerism in the labor code, which they felt exposed religious organizations to potential negative legal consequences. Religious leaders stated that the government expected religious organizations to define specific working hours for staff and pay them according to those hours, which, they said, presented a problem, since many staff viewed their religious vocation as a way of life requiring them to be always available to meet the needs of their congregation.
Jewish and Muslim leaders said customs regulations, import taxes, and onerous paperwork continued to hinder the ability to import kosher and halal foods, beverages, and plants used for religious ceremonies and holidays. A Jewish leader said the law treated religious communities the same as companies because all imports, including those for religious purposes, were taxed and treated as commercial items. Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders said they were exploring legal actions to address their concerns about local authorities’ violating religious organizations’ rights to receive certain tax privileges. For example, they said, authorities in Quito denied their requests for property tax exemptions, and the municipal government in Duran in the Guayaquil area charged religious organizations permit fees intended for business entities. A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative said he did not believe his organization was being singled out.
President Lasso invited leaders from Catholic and evangelical Protestant communities to attend his May 24 inauguration to convey what he said was his message of inclusion and reconciliation, stating that religious groups were called to be “witnesses of the reconciliation between the state and churches.” According to evangelical Protestant leaders, it was the first time in the country’s history that non-Catholic leaders were formally invited to a presidential inauguration.
Religious leaders said they coordinated closely with national authorities to ensure COVID-19 health and safety protocols were followed in the staged reopening of in-person religious practices. They also said they continued to work with authorities to deliver food kits and other humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities.
Religious leaders said President Lasso’s first state of exception declaration for the national prison system due to violent prison riots, in effect July 22 to September 20, temporarily restricted visitors’ access to inmates, including visits by religious groups. President Lasso declared a second state of exception for the national prison system from September 29 to November 28 after 118 inmates were killed during violent clashes between rival gangs in Guayaquil on September 28. Lasso declared a third state of exception for the national prison system from November 29 to December 28 after 68 inmates were killed in a prison riot involving rival gangs on November 12. Catholic and evangelical Christian volunteers said they were not allowed to visit inmates during the states of exception in Guayaquil-area prisons, where security concerns were greatest. According to press reports, religious leaders expressed a willingness to participate in a dialogue with President Lasso to find a solution to the prison crisis. Religious leaders welcomed Lasso’s December 16 announcement to appoint two religious representatives to serve on a newly formed commission with a mandate to develop a strategy to prevent, control, and respond to prison violence.
Religious leaders said the National Assembly that took office on May 14 made no progress on a proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that CONALIR, which includes representatives from Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical and nonevangelical Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh-day Adventist Church faith communities, discussed with the previous National Assembly in 2018. CONALIR’s proposed reforms aim to create greater equality between the Catholic Church and other religious groups, to update the registration process for religious groups, and to recognize legally the nonprofit status of all religious groups and the practice of utilizing volunteers for certain activities.
On April 28, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling decriminalizing abortion in all cases of rape. On April 26, the Episcopal Conference of Ecuador, representing Catholic bishops, issued a statement calling on the Constitutional Court to defend life and expressing concerns for decriminalizing abortion. Then president-elect Lasso published a statement on April 28, saying his government would respect the court’s decision, despite his strong personal religious beliefs. The statement also said he believed in the separation of powers and the separation between church and state. In May, evangelical Christian organizations submitted an appeal of the ruling to the Constitutional Court.
On August 11, the Constitutional Court set a precedent involving the rights of religious organizations by ruling in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a case involving a conflict with indigenous residents in the town of San Juan de Iluman in Imbabura Province. The ruling concluded the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious freedom and right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination had been violated. The Constitutional Court also ruled local courts had violated the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to due process by repeatedly dismissing their protective action requests and ordered intercultural training sessions for local government officials and judges involved in the case. Jehovah’s Witnesses said the ruling was the first Constitutional Court case involving discrimination due to religious belief. The case stems from a 2014 Jehovah’s Witness appeal after a group of protesters broke into and damaged a Kingdom Hall under construction. According to religious leaders, local government authorities then coerced the Jehovah’s Witnesses leadership to sign a statement requiring the suspension of construction and preventing the group from gathering in town.
In December, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a Seventh-day Adventist student who filed a lawsuit against the University of Guayaquil to accommodate the student’s request to reschedule an exam to allow the student to observe the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath. A provincial court ordered the school to accommodate the student’s request in 2019, but the university appealed the decision. The Constitutional Court upheld the provincial court’s decision.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the Attorney General’s Office, during the year, authorities prosecuted one case under the penal code for publicly offending or insulting the religious beliefs of others; it did not provide details on the case. At year’s end, the PDDH reported it had not received notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.
According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 169 requests for registration of religious groups during the year, compared with 122 in 2020. Of these, the ministry approved 28 and denied 24 because of incomplete documentation; 117 were pending at year’s end. Government officials said the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact the registration process because several officials from the ministry teleworked and did not have access to all relevant documents. The Ministry of Governance reported that although the registration process was available electronically, many religious groups did not present the required documents in a timely manner. According to the ministry, delays in registration approvals occurred because religious groups were first required to obtain legal entity documentation and the paperwork that they submitted to the ministry was incorrect or incomplete.
Although the Minister of Prisons officially prohibited religious organizations, nonprofit organizations, and the PDDH from visiting prisons due to COVID-19 safety protocols, several religious organizations reported they had sporadic access to prisoners.
Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain with an outstanding arrest warrant for the killing Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass, remained a fugitive. In March, civil rights attorneys stated that 41 years after the crime, the case still had not advanced. They accused the Attorney General’s Office of negligence by not appointing a team to investigate the case, which remained pending at year’s end.
In February, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Spain dismissed former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano’s appeal and ratified his sentence of 133 years and four months in prison. In September 2020, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced Montano for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuits at the Central American University in San Salvador.
According to press reports, the Attorney General’s Office had not replied to the December 2020 request by human rights advocates to reopen the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes and former president Alfredo Cristiani, all accused of planning the 1989 Jesuit killings. Jesuit priest Jose Maria Tojeira said he was pressing the Prosecutor’s Office to reopen the cases and to investigate two magistrates who had ruled to close the cases in September 2020 because he said they seemed to intentionally ignore a 2007 decision by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. The 2007 decision annulled the 1993 amnesty law, which had provided amnesty against prosecution to war criminals, including the perpetrators of the 1989 Jesuit killings.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The conflict that erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 spread to other regions during the year and victims of violence included religious figures. According to media, at least 78 priests were reportedly killed in Tigray during the first five months of the year by soldiers from the national army and Eritrean troops. The Telegraph reported the killings based on a church letter to the Synod of the EOTC that said “priests, deacons, choristers and monks” had been “massacred” over a period of five months.
In April, according to media, Co-Patriarch Mathias, an ethnic Tigrayan, accused the government of genocide in Tigray. In a video shot the previous month on a mobile phone and taken out of the country, the Co-Patriarch addressed the Church’s millions of followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out were blocked. “I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray,” the Co-Patriarch said, speaking in Amharic. “They want to destroy the people of Tigray,” he added, listing alleged atrocities including massacres and forced starvation as well as the destruction of churches and looting.
On February 25, the Europe External Programme with Africa reported that one monk was killed during the bombing and looting of Debre Damo Monastery in Tigray in January. Reportedly, Eritrean troops aligned with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were responsible for the attack. The Times reported other buildings had been completely destroyed, including monks’ ancient dwellings. Many reporters cited ethnic grievance as the basis of the attack and said there was no evidence the attack was religiously motivated.
On May 9, according to the Addis Standard, government security forces dispersed thousands of Muslims from Meskel Square where the Muslim community in Addis Ababa had organized a Grand Iftar event during Ramadan. In response to videos and photos showing security forces firing teargas at the crowds, Muslim activists and clerics on social media decried the government’s actions as religiously motivated. Some members of the EOTC said Meskel Square was the EOTC’s traditional property. City officials, however, said the violent dispersal was due to safety concerns arising from the unexpectedly large number of attendees and ongoing construction in Meskel Square. City officials consequently canceled the event and rescheduled it for May 11. According to the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), the rescheduled event was held peacefully. ENA also reported that the purposes of the event included demonstrating that Ramadan was a time of compassion, sharing, and supporting one another in line with Islamic teachings and praying for the unity of the country. Despite the delay, event organizers thanked city administrators for allowing the event to take place. Mayor of Addis Ababa Adanech Abiebie stated that the square belonged to all citizens – not just Christians – and called for Ethiopians to unite and celebrate religious differences.
In June, police accused a preacher from the Mahibere Kidusan – an EOTC congregation – of supporting the TPLF, which parliament had designated as a terrorist group. Police reportedly arrested members of the Mahibere Kidusan for taking pictures of police officers during a demonstration outside the home of EOTC Co-Patriarch Mathias. Demonstrators marched to show solidarity with Mathias after he publicly condemned the ongoing war in Tigray and characterized abuses against Tigrayans as genocide.
According to media, in July, police officers raided a church in Addis Ababa, interrupting prayers and forcing a dozen ethnic Tigrayan priests and monks into a pickup truck; they were released several weeks later.
In August, Minister of Health Lia Tadesse thanked the IRCE for holding a high-level advocacy meeting on reduction of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. She tweeted, “Our Creator does not stigmatize and discriminate; let’s not stigmatize and discriminate.”
On January 5, the BBC reported the government agreed to repair the al-Nejashi Mosque that was damaged in 2020 during the conflict in Tigray. Local Muslims said the mosque was the oldest in Africa. The government said a nearby church would also be repaired.
During the year, the government provided funding to religious schools, including 250 Catholic schools and 219 Islamic schools.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
On June 24, the San Benito, Peten Sentencing Court sentenced Domingo Choc’s three attackers, Edin Arnoldo Pop Caal, Romelia Caal Chub, and Candelaria Magaly Pop Caal, to 20 years in prison for killing Choc in 2020, but according to a family associate, his family was disappointed by the court’s decision not to recognize the killing as motivated by anti-Mayan spiritual hate but rather as a homicide without premeditation. Mayan spiritual leaders said they widely believed the killing was motivated by anti-Mayan sentiment, but they said the court’s decision to try the case as homicide and not murder reflected the view of some, including the Evangelical Alliance and the Catholic Church, that the killing was a result of personal issues between families. According to a statement from the Catholic church in Peten published in 2020 shortly after the killing, while expressing shock and horror at the killing of Domingo Choc, church officials said the killing was a result of a disagreement between two families and not a rejection of Mayan spiritual culture. Family members said they continued to fear for their safety and remained in exile in the nearby town of Poptun. The lawyer for Choc’s family, Juan Castro, said the case had both cultural and religious dimensions, but according to Castro, the judge had treated the case according to law as a simple murder (intentional homicide with a maximum sentence of 20 years) and not as an assassination (homicide of a targeted person based on religion, ethnicity, race, or political affiliation with premeditation, with a maximum sentence of 50 years). Castro also said the judge did not consider as an aggravating circumstance that the killing was motivated by an accusation of witchcraft against Domingo, who was a Mayan scholar and researcher of ancient medicinal plants. In addition, the judge did not impose economic compensation for Domingo´s family, only a 13,600 quetzal ($1,800) fine for funeral expenses. In November, Castro challenged the ruling, and the court scheduled his appeal to be heard in February 2022.
During the year, the government applied more restrictive measures on churches and temples than other public venues, including restaurants and bars. Representatives of Protestant and Catholic groups said the government’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions limited the free exercise of religion, even if that had not been the government’s intent. The government applied a traffic light color-coded system depending on the number of active COVID-19 cases to determine the severity of restrictions. For example, under mild restrictions (Yellow Alert), religious services were limited to 30 minutes, with a mandatory one-hour break in between services and a minimum area requirement of 27 square feet per person. Open-air dining restaurants, for example, were allowed a minimum of 16 square feet per person and could open continuously within curfew hours. As a result of the restrictions, many religious groups used social media platforms to continue live religious services.
According to evangelical Protestant groups, non-Catholic religious groups must follow a vaguely defined registration process involving several steps that may take up to two years and cost approximately 10,000 quetzals ($1,300) to register with the Ministry of Interior to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status.
In May, three of the four Mayan spiritual groups associated with COLUSAG withdrew, leaving only one organization, the Consultants and Organizations of Ajq’ijab’, in the umbrella organization. According to a former coordinator of COLUSAG, the departures of these groups continued a trend of decreasing relevancy for the committee. The passage of a law on sacred sites, which COLUSAG submitted to Congress in 2009, remained pending. According to a Mayan spiritual leader involved in drafting the bill, if passed, the resulting law would provide legally protected status for Mayan spiritual sites, making it a crime to damage them or remove spiritual objects from them. The law would also establish a national council with legal authority to name holy sites and credential Mayan spiritual practitioners for the purposes of granting them access to protected sites.
According to the Ombudsman, the Congressional Commission on Human Rights approved PDH’s full annual funding of 120 million quetzals ($15.58 million) on November 24. The Ombudsman said the 11-month delay hampered the PDH’s official functions of enforcing and monitoring the free expression of religion throughout the country. According to the Ombudsman, the PDH’s delayed funding impeded its operations due to mounting debt and lack of funding to purchase fuel and supplies for its work throughout the country.
Some Mayan leaders said the government continued to limit their access to several religious sites on government-owned property and to require them to pay to access the sites, even though the Ministry of Culture offered free access to credentialed Mayan spiritual practitioners. Those same leaders said these credentials were not given in a timely manner to all practitioners who wished to access the sites. The government continued to state there were no limitations on access; however, anyone seeking access to the sites located in national parks or other protected areas had to pay processing or entrance fees. In Tikal, a complex of Mayan pyramids dating from 200 A.D. and one of the most sacred sites for Mayan spirituality, the access fee was approximately 20 to 30 quetzals ($3 to $4), which, according to members of COLUSAG, was prohibitive for many indigenous populations.
The Mayan community of Chicoyoguito continued to petition for access to its sacred sites and the return of land in Alta Verapaz, located in the north-central part of the country, including its sacred ceremonial center and a spiritual site on a former military base from which the government removed them in 1978. On June 9, National Civil Police arrested 21 Chicoyoguito community members who were peacefully protesting on the land. On June 18, the First Court of Coban, Alta Verapaz, ordered the Public Ministry to investigate 18 protesters for aggravated criminal trespassing because the protesters refused to leave after police ordered them to do so; the remaining three were investigated for attempted trespassing.
During the year, the La Ruta initiative engaged approximately 12 spiritual leaders, providing them the opportunity to raise concerns with central government leaders regarding future private sector investment on sacred sites in the Western Highlands. The spiritual leaders expressed their dissatisfaction concerning continued lack of access to some Maya spiritual sites, especially those considered private property.
According to the Guatemalan Interreligious Dialogue, an interfaith group with representatives of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant Churches, the Church of Jesus Christ, Mayan spiritual groups, and Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish groups, some municipal authorities in rural areas continued to discriminate against non-Catholic groups in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection.
Missionaries, including some affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to report that complicated government procedures required to apply for temporary residence were made even more cumbersome by COVID-19 social distancing measures, especially in-person requirements such as presenting photographs and signing documents. According to Church of Jesus Christ representatives, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many foreign missionaries voluntarily exited the country. Due to the continued prevalence of COVID-19, many missionaries did not return during the year.
On June 2, more than 83 members of Congress presented a bill partially drafted and sponsored by the Association of the Importance of Family and the Council of Catholic Bishops, among other religious groups, entitled “The Initiative on the Law of Freedom of Religion and Consciousness,” to the Congressional Commission on Governance. If passed, it would create a department in the Ministry of Interior to register new religious organizations, establish tax-exempt status for all religious organizations, and no longer require religious organizations to provide information on their finances, including an article that would allow churches to keep private the sources of their donations. Although leaders of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant groups, and interfaith organizations helped draft the bill, some religious groups, including the Council of Catholic Bishops, objected to an article allowing churches to potentially hide the sources of their funding. This article was added after the bill’s first draft before it was submitted to the congressional committee. According to civil society groups that helped draft the original bill, anticorruption groups also widely criticized the article as a method to enable and protect money laundering. At year’s end, the bill remained pending in committee.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to media, representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. “To deny me the holy herb for my sacrament is to deny me my human rights,” said Ras Simeon, an elder from the Rastafarian community. In January, the government introduced into the National Assembly a draft bill to remove prison time for possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana and to remove the fine for smoking or otherwise using cannabis. After the bill’s introduction, it was sent it to a select parliamentary committee for further deliberation on January 28. At year’s end, the bill remained pending in committee. The Guyana Rastafari Council continued to petition the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes, holding regular protests in front of the office of the Attorney General. In October, the general secretary of the council told media that authorities had conducted raids on their places of worship to seize marijuana. He said the Rastafarian community would not stop planting or consuming marijuana and that authorities used drug laws as an excuse to publicly harass Rastafarians. In July, the IROG, composed of representatives of all religious groups, including Rastafarians, released a statement to support “comprehensive law reform to recognize and respect the religious rights of the Rastafari community.” A Rastafarian member of the IROG said he did not believe that the measures taken by the government to introduce but not pass legislation were sufficient and asked for international support to lobby the government.
The government continued to maintain regulations limiting the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the President’s discretion; however, the government and religious groups, whose membership included foreign missionaries, continued to state the government did not apply the visa limitation rule. Religious groups also said the visa quotas the government allotted to them were sufficient and did not adversely affect their activities.
In February, one of the ERC’s Muslim commissioners called the organization “dysfunctional and wasteful” and said it was not fulfilling its mandate. According to the commissioner, the ERC, established in 2000 and reconstituted in 2018, continued to provide public messaging during local holidays, but its other public activities were limited, as the commissioners’ three-year term expired in April and the government did not name new members during the year.
The government continued to promote interfaith harmony and respect for diversity through its public messaging. On all major Christian, Hindu, and Islamic holidays, President Mohammed Irfaan Ali delivered national messages. During Ramadan, Ali stated, “Ramadan teaches us to have love for all and hatred for none.” In his Easter message, Ali stated, “Christ’s selfless action and sacrifice must be the lesson [to] sacrifice for the greater good of humanity,” and in his Diwali message, Ali stated, “May the sacred festival of Diwali ignite in all of us the flame of love and concern for others, and may it bless us with the spirit of generosity.”
In January, the Ministry of Human Services and Social Services formalized its SAHN initiative, a partnership among the ministry and nearly 30 leaders from religious communities with the stated goal of increasing tolerance and strengthening interfaith cooperation, as well as developing recommendations and strategies to address social inequities and the marginalization of communities. The government initiated the partnership as a response to the August 2020 killing of two Afro-Guyanese minors that many in the country viewed as ethnically motivated. During the year, faith leaders belonging to SAHN reached out to communities affected by violence and offered financial support and counseling for family members. The organization was fully government run, and its membership could not speak on its behalf without ministry clearance.
While many prominent religious leaders asked their congregations to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, according to press reporting in July, Minister of Health Frank Anthony expressed concern that several religious leaders in rural communities were discouraging congregants from being vaccinated on religious grounds. “We’re confronted in some communities where people who have influence in those communities; some of the faith-based leaders have been telling their church members not [to] take vaccine,” the minister said. According to press, the ministry aimed to increase rural outreach to religious leaders to increase vaccination rates.
Several individuals active in religious circles said that the government favored certain Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups over others due to the personal affiliations of government ministers. They said, however, that this favoritism did not affect freedom of religious expression or practice in the country.
In October, a Hindu citizen criticized the Ministry of Education in an editorial for allowing a prayer that he characterized as Christian to be recited at a ceremony announcing the results of the Caribbean Examinations Council (the regional organization overseeing curriculum and examinations processes), citing it as discriminatory. The ministry replied that the prayer was universal, stating it was the same prayer routinely recited during parliamentary sessions. In a statement, the ministry reiterated the government position that “no one religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. is or should be made to be seen as dominant over the other, and [it] has noted that there have been some events where the intention of the ministry and its policy was not followed and had re-issued a memo, with the universal prayer attached, reminding of said policy.”
Government representatives continued to meet with leaders of various religious groups with the expressed aim of promoting social cohesion and discussing the tolerance of diversity, including of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian groups. Government officials also participated regularly in the observance of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic religious holidays throughout the year. The government continued to declare some holy days of the country’s three major religious groups, including Eid al-Adha, Holi, Easter, and Diwali, as national holidays.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to media, on April 15, police fired tear gas at dozens of individuals participating in a nationwide event called “Mass for the Freedom of Haiti.” On this date, the Catholic Church held hundreds of masses simultaneously across the country to protest the deepening political crisis and rising insecurity during the government of then President Moise. At the time, the 400 Mawozo gang had been holding 10 Catholic clergy for a period of four days. As a focal point for the event, 11 Catholic bishops led by Archbishop of Port-au-Prince Max Leroy Mesidor held Mass at the Church of St. Peter in Petion-Ville, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Authorities said they used tear gas after the conclusion of Mass to prevent the escalation of violence because nearby demonstrators had begun to burn cars. In the aftermath, Father Loudeger Mazile, spokesman for the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Haiti, asked everyone “to remain calm so that we can return to the route of democracy and development.”
Media also reported that on April 21, outside the National Palace, approximately 20 protesters, using a Vodou ritual, demonstrated against Moise-era overall insecurity and kidnappings of Catholic clergy. While protesters were conducting the ritual, police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse them.
Religious leaders publicly called for the cessation of violence during the year. In March, the Haitian Conference of Religious wrote an open letter calling on then President Moise to step down, citing what they said was rampant insecurity and injustice in the country, and it stated his administration represented a “descent into hell.” The letter said of the then Moise government, “The country is dying, the population is under a yoke, insecurity is rampant, the poorest are no longer able to sustain themselves, the population is in disarray and on the verge of desperation… [President Moise] has the duty to give quick and concrete answers to the requests of the people, starting with respect for the laws of the country.” The calls for government accountability expanded into major protests throughout the country during the entire month of March. A wide-reaching coalition of Protestant churches joined the growing protests after the Protestant Commission Against Dictatorship in Haiti and the Episcopal Conference of Haiti issued statements calling upon the population to “defend the life, future, and dignity of the Haitian people.” In April, Catholic leaders continued to publish statements and organize protests, but the focus was increasingly on the lack of government response to kidnappings and gang violence.
The 1860 concordat was a major subject of debate among religious leaders during the year. A Catholic leader said the Church continued to adhere to the concordat because it was legally bound to do so under the country’s legal system. One Protestant leader said the concordat was a contract between two sovereign states that must be respected until it was reassessed. He added that his denomination valued its independence and had no interest in submitting its choices in religious leadership for government approval. Conversely, several other non-Catholic religious leaders raised concern about the concordat. One Protestant leader said the concordat afforded the Catholic Church powerful influence over the government. Vodou leaders cited it as an example of “historical institutionalized predisposition” against them.
Vodou leaders said that while the state of religious freedom made them optimistic for the future, prejudice against them still lingered and often made Vodouists fearful to practice openly. They did not, however, accuse the government of directly discriminating against them. Vodou leaders said the government could do more to combat ongoing societal discrimination by encouraging acceptance of Vodouists. One leader said, “The government should provide us financial support like they do for the Protestants, Catholics, and Episcopalians.”
Some Protestant religious leaders advocated for increased government regulation of religious groups. One leader stated, “There may be too much religious freedom,” and she said some religious leaders had long called for more stringent government standards for clergy registration. She said her concern was that self-described pastors with little religious training or accountability could prey on naive churchgoers. Another Protestant leader also commented on the need for stringent standards for clergy, citing COVID-19 misinformation. He said, “Hiding behind religious freedom, questionable leaders have preached against COVID-19 vaccination or even promoted unscientific cures. The government should do something.”
The BOW said that it continued to work with less established religious groups to facilitate their registrations, while defending what it said was the importance of a rigorous registration process. In May, the BOW granted an operating license to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the smallest of the three Muslim communities in the country and the first to receive official status. According to the BOW, the Ahmadiyya community followed the same registration procedure that applied to all religious groups. The license allowed the MOE to register schools operated by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community so their students could take national exams. BOW Director General Souffrant said the transparency of the Ahmadiyya leadership during the registration process assisted the government in its decision to grant it a license. Sunni and Shia Muslim groups had not completed the procedures for registration and remained unregistered at year’s end. Sunni and Shia leaders cited what they called “the complex political environment” as a factor delaying their registration, with one leader stating, “The current de facto government is not likely to take it upon itself to recognize a religion that is nascent in the country.” BOW Director General Souffrant disagreed with this characterization, citing the successful example of the Ahmadiyya community. At year’s end, representatives from the Sunni and Shia communities did not cite specific procedural barriers that distinguished their experience from other groups.
Despite the benefits of registering, many religious groups and leaders chose to remain unregistered. According to the BOW, many religious groups and leaders preferred to remain unregistered to avoid government oversight. Religious minorities said they generally disagreed with this assessment or suggested it was an oversimplification. According to a Vodou leader, in contrast to its Catholic and Protestant counterparts, the decentralized Vodou community did not easily fit into the government’s criteria for institutional registration. The Vodou leader also said Vodou clergy faced structural barriers to BOW registration because no degree-granting institution existed for Vodouists, and to create one would be contrary to their initiation rituals. Two Vodouists had earlier received government recognition, but these were the religion’s highest-level officials, and they obtained the formal credentials required for BOW registration through their appointment to leadership positions within the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou.
According to the BOW, there were 9,195 certified Protestant pastors, 704 certified Catholic priests, and two certified Vodou clergy at year’s end, representing no change from 2020. By year’s end, the government had not certified any Muslim clergy, including from the newly registered Ahmadiyya community.
According to a Catholic leader, the Catholic Church felt “penalized” whenever a Protestant or Vodouist headed the MFA, of which the BOW is part. He stated that whenever the Catholic Church criticized government actions, the MFA retaliated by creating long delays for certification of clergy and other routine requests. Representatives of the Episcopal Church said the registration process was “reasonable and fair.”
According to the World Bank, approximately 75 percent of total primary school enrollment and 82 percent of total secondary school enrollment in the country was in private, usually religious, schools. The MOE stated that Catholic schools accounted for 15 percent (16 percent of total enrollment) of all schools in the education system, and public schools accounted for 12 percent. The remaining 73 percent of schools were private institutions either run by Protestant churches (of a wide variety of denominations), secular for-profit, or secular nonprofit organizations. Although there were no available official statistics, the majority of these were private Protestant institutions, according to the BOW. The significant expansion of private Protestant institutions was initiated and facilitated in large part by the Jean-Claude Duvalier administration’s national education campaign during the 1970s and 1980s, which required missionaries to build an affiliated school with the construction of any church.
During the 2020-2021 school year, the MOE disbursed a total of 100 million gourdes ($1 million) to religious schools through the National Education Fund: 50 million ($501,000) to Catholic schools; 40 million to Protestant schools ($401,000); and 10 million ($100,000) to Episcopalian schools, which the ministry counted separately from Protestant schools. The MOE distributed funds roughly in proportion to each religious group’s percent share of the student population. The Director General of the Office of the National Education Fund stated on November 22 that the same amounts would be disbursed for the 2021-2022 school year. In 2020, the government signed a three-year agreement with the Catholic Church calling for annual public financial support for Catholic schools, especially those in vulnerable areas, as identified jointly by political and civil society leaders. By year’s end, there was no announcement regarding funding under this agreement.
The MOE continued to schedule national exams on weekdays instead of Saturdays, which allowed the full participation of Seventh-day Adventist students.
In September, Prime Minister Ariel Henry dismissed the incumbent members of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), seeking to replace them with what he called a “more credible” body of representatives. Upon dismissing the incumbent members, he invited representatives from civil society to nominate new ones. Among religious groups that received his request, the Catholic Church and Protestant Federation initially refused to participate in the process to join the CEP on the grounds that the representational institution had become too politicized. Government officials said they expected Catholic, Protestant, and Vodou communities to nominate members from their respective associations by year’s end; however, at year’s end, none of these communities had nominated new members. Government officials involved in the procedures for CEP formation stated that the nomination process for the Protestant representative to the CEP was particularly contentious because multiple Protestant coordinating bodies each saw themselves as the rightful representative of the country’s Protestants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In advance of the November 28 general elections, some religious groups issued public statements encouraging their followers to peacefully participate in the electoral process. In addition, some religious organizations, such as the Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas and the Association for a More Just Society (a Christian nongovernmental organization [NGO]), participated as civil society election observers during the voting and vote count process.
During the year, the DIRRSAC registered 151 religious associations of a total of 208 applications, compared with a total of 86 applications and 66 registered associations in 2020. According to the DIRRSAC, it did not deny any registration requests by religious associations during the year, and 57 applications continued to be under review through year’s end.
Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to express concerns that some schools and other public and private institutions did not grant them leave to observe their Sabbath on Saturday because Saturdays were part of the official work week. They cited specifically the public Francisco Morazan National Pedagogical University and the Catholic University of Honduras in La Ceiba. They said the Supreme Court had ruled favorably in 2019 on a constitutional challenge that Seventh-day Adventist students filed in 2015 seeking alternatives to taking classes or exams on Saturdays, but these two universities did not uphold that ruling, nor did the government enforce it. Reportedly, students at both universities requested the institutions comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Other students said they decided not to pursue further recourse due to fear of additional discrimination and retaliation from their professors, or they opted to withdraw from the university.
Some religious organizations, including the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization FIH, which states that 40 religious groups are members and does not have a formalized agreement with the government, said the government continued to give preference to religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH, which states its membership includes 360 religious groups. On September 30, the FIH said the government discriminated against its members in the application of residency permits and a request for tax exemption. The FIH said the government did not approve or respond to an application for tax exemption for the construction of a religious building or applications for residence permits for its foreign missionaries, while approving similar applications from the CEH, which has an agreement with the government.
At year’s end, CONADEH reported it had not received any complaints of religious discrimination or restrictions on religious freedom.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated five cases related to religious freedom at the state and one at the federal level during the year, compared with four in 2020 in Michoacan and Guerrero. Most of these cases involved religious minorities who stated members of the majority religious community where they lived had deprived them of the right to basic services, including water, education, and electricity. In one case, a community forced religious minorities to build a Catholic church. According to DGAR, the state government received most incidents of religious discrimination because the federal government did not have jurisdiction. Some NGOs stated municipal and state officials mediated disputes between religious groups, but government officials said this was not official practice. NGOs noted municipal and state officials frequently sided with local leaders at the expense of minority religions. Some groups also said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal, mediated solutions. According to CSW, vulnerable religious communities described high levels of impunity and a lack of protections granted by state officials, whom they said often sided with members of majority religious groups.
During the year, CONAPRED received three complaints of religious discrimination, compared with two in 2020. Two of the three complaints were against public servants purportedly discriminating against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, the other was against a private individual who discriminated against an LLDM member, according to CONAPRED. The incidents took place in the states of Baja California, Jalisco, and Veracruz. During the year, CONAPRED documented religious intolerance against LLDM members in schools, workplaces, and temples, possibly linked to the arrest of its church leader Joaquin Garcia, accused of child rape. CONAPRED also recorded antisemitic and anti-Muslim social media attacks during the Israel-Palestinian conflict in May and after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in August. In September, in Monclova, Coahuila, CONAPRED mediated a conflict following Father Lazaro Hernandez Soto’s statement that “women who abort are useless” and calling on parents to kill their daughters if they committed abortion. In response, the Episcopal Conference of Mexico issued an apology. According to some sources, cases of religious discrimination were often not reported due to lack of awareness of the filing process.
DGAR registered 61 new religious associations during the year, compared with none in 2020. By year’s end, DGAR listed 9,615 registered religious associations. Registered groups included 9,571 Christian, 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and three International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups as well as 14 new religious expression groups. According to DGAR, new religious expressions groups are philosophical or spiritual communities that might be born of new beliefs or be part of a broader religion; DGAR stated they were on the periphery of traditional religions.
On January 10, according to the Christian news site Evangelical Focus, Tzotzil Catholics from the indigenous Mitzition community in San Cristobal, in the state of Chiapas, damaged five houses belonging to evangelical Protestant pastor Alejandro Jimenez Jimenez and his sons. Mitzition community authorities arrested the pastor and his son Miguel Jimenez Heredia on charges of illegally building a church. According to the El Heraldo de Chiapas, the pastor’s family was building a house and not a church. The evangelical Protestant family was expelled by the community and was living in a refugee shelter at year’s end. On June 18, according to the El Heraldo de Chiapas, when Jimenez returned to visit his mother, authorities detained him and his family for an hour and Catholics burned down what remained of Jimenez’s and his family’s five homes. Pastor Esdras Alonso Gonzalez accused authorities of not doing enough to address the situation. In August, evangelical Protestant and Muslim leaders protested in San Cristobal de las Casas, demanding that the federal government act on the Jimenez case. On July 25, according to CSW, authorities from the majority Catholic community of Ahuacachahue, Guerrero imprisoned a family who, citing their religious beliefs, refused to sell alcohol during a Catholic festival.
According to CSW, in March, local community members continued to farm the land of one of four evangelical Protestant families forcibly displaced by local community members of Cuamontax, in the state of Hidalgo, in July 2019. In June 2020, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief made an inquiry to the government; in August 2020, officials of the Mexican Permanent Mission to the United Nations acknowledged receipt of the inquiry and said they would relay it to the relevant offices. In January, the evangelical Protestants filed a complaint with Hidalgo’s Human Rights Office. In March, community leaders denied the Protestant families titles to their land.
NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that authorities in some rural and indigenous communities expected residents, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings and, in some cases, to adhere to the majority religion. According to CSW’s 2020 report, some Protestant minority families from indigenous communities were denied access to crucial utilities such as water and electricity, and some children were not allowed to attend local schools because their families did not adhere to the majority religion.
On April 26, SEGOB released a statement warning of sanctions against religious associations that intervene in partisan politics ahead of June legislative elections.
In June, the SCJN ordered state of Jalisco authorities to supervise the implementation of a 2020 ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, Jalisco. The SCJN also ordered Jalisco authorities to mediate between community members to uphold the safety of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2017, community members expelled the Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in Catholic community activities. The court decided the affected parties must be reintegrated into their original communities and ordered state authorities to guarantee their security. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different plot of land within the territory and their prior community could continue to deny their “rights and obligations” as community members, “as they no longer share an essential element, their religion.” CSW stated many traditional authorities mandate community uniformity in terms of religious practice and belief, compelling all members of the community to participate in the religious activities of the majority or face punishment. According to CSW, the SCJN ruling was the first to provide protection for indigenous persons whose rights were reportedly abused through an indigenous community’s legally protected “uses and customs.” CSW also stated, “We remain concerned that the court considers it ‘legitimate’ that these Jehovah’s Witnesses should be stripped of their rights as members of their communities. This may embolden those who commit crimes in their efforts to harass and intimidate religious minorities and who are rarely held to account. We urge the state governments of Jalisco and Oaxaca to guarantee the safe return and reintegration of these families. We also call on both federal and state governments in Mexico to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief and to ensure just outcomes for all other religious minority communities residing in temporary accommodations as a result of being expelled from their communities on account of their religious beliefs.”
Religions for Inclusion, a government-run interfaith working group, invited experts to discuss demographic religious affiliation data and the electoral process. In December, the group held a forum on human rights and religion. On a quarterly basis, the group discussed experiences with religious intolerance and discrimination. Members of the group included leaders of the Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ, LLDM, Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, Church of Scientology communities and a DGAR government representative.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In November, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted Bishop Abelardo Mata (who retired in July) precautionary (protective) measures – in which the IACHR requests that a state serve a protective function and protect a person from irreparable harm – after it received reports from human rights organizations that Mata was a victim of constant harassment and had received death threats. Mata had been an outspoken critic of government violations of human rights, including religious freedom, since before 2018. The commission stated in its decision that “the information presented demonstrates prima facie that the persons identified are in a serious and urgent situation, since their rights to life and personal integrity are at risk of irreparable harm.”
According to media reports, Father Edwing Roman, a Catholic priest granted precautionary (protective) measures by the IACHR since 2018, continued to be a victim of harassment and received multiple death threats during the year. According to media, during the voter registration process in July ahead of the November election, a government supporter verbally harassed Father Roman in Masaya at his local voting center. The man shouted at Father Roman, “You are a criminal, a murderer!” On August 3, Roman traveled to Miami and said he had initially planned to return within 15 days. He delayed his return, however, after Vice President Murillo made statements to local media on August 6 calling him “that priest from Masaya” and a “criminal.” By year’s end, Roman had not returned to the country.
In April, the Church of Saint Michael in Masaya celebrated Mass in memory of Alvaro Gomez, a prodemocracy protester killed by an unidentified shooter in 2018. Reports stated that dozens of police stationed in front of the church intimidated worshippers as they entered the service to dissuade them from attending Mass. In the same month in Esteli, Catholic clergy closed the cathedral after parapolice harassed and intimidated worshippers attempting to hold Mass in commemoration of Franco Valdivia, reportedly killed by an unidentified sniper during the 2018 civic protests. Police prevented worshippers from entering the church and took Valdivia’s relatives to the police station, where reportedly police detained them for a few hours, beat them, ordered them to strip, and verbally threatened them. Also in April, a group of government supporters interrupted Mass in Our Lady of Rosary Church in Chinandega chanting, “Long Live Daniel!” in reference to President Ortega.
According to press and social media reports, Catholic Church leaders throughout the country continued to experience harassment from government supporters, who often acted in tandem with police. Other Catholic leaders privately said they felt fear and intimidation when celebrating Mass. Clergy reported police and parapolice forces congregated at the entrance of churches and took pictures to intimidate priests and churchgoers in several cities throughout the country, including Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, and Esteli. Clergy also reported drones flying over churches and adjacent parking lots. In October, Father Vicente Martinez told media that the Matagalpa police chief visited him the day after a video of his Sunday homily went viral. In his homily, Martinez criticized the electoral process. Martinez said that, although the police chief called it a “courtesy visit,” “the message [threat] was clear.”
In September, local media reported a large vendor fair appeared on the main public road in front of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Matagalpa. Such fairs require authorization from the FSLN-controlled Matagalpa City Hall and police. The vendors installed tents in front of and around the cathedral, making access to the church difficult. Music played loudly over speakers and interrupted the regularly scheduled church services.
Catholic clergy continued to report that the government denied access to prisons following the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. Reportedly only one priest was allowed access to prisons during the year. Prior to April 2018, clergy said they regularly entered prisons to celebrate Mass and provide communion and confession to detainees. According to human rights organizations, from May to October, police imprisoned 39 citizens, including opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders. Human rights organizations described their detention as arbitrary and categorized them as political prisoners. Several of these prisoners requested Bibles through family visits, but prison authorities denied these requests.
Through clergy homilies and pastoral letters, the Catholic Church, including priests throughout the country, continued to speak out against violence on the part of the government and progovernment groups, also denouncing the lack of democratic institutions. On October 15, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua issued a written statement that said, “A valuable opportunity to correct the country’s course was missed,” referencing the November 7 general election. On August 10, the commission said the Catholic Church had been subject to threats in previous months as well as “insults to priests and bishops, limitations on visas or residence permits of foreign priests, harassment of the lay faithful, and other illegal and intimidating actions.” The commission’s statement said the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church took place amid a lack of conditions for a free and fair election in November. La Prensa in August said that the harassment and threats made against the Catholic Church came from FSLN political operatives affiliated with the Ortega-Murillo government. On June 8, the commission wrote that “no one has the authority to deprive individuals of their rights,” referring to the arbitrary arrests of presidential hopefuls, opposition leaders, businesspersons, students, and civil society leaders beginning in May.
According to media, the NNP on October 26 began surrounding the home of Cardinal Brenes, a tactic observers said the government often used to intimidate opposition leaders. In September, police began monitoring Brenes’ home and photographing all individuals who entered, including priests.
According to La Prensa on August 11, “The Ortega regime has engaged in an open war against the Catholic Church since April 2018.” In February, a priest quoted in local media said the Ortega administration had increased its persecution of the population and the Catholic Church. He said, “We have our hands up, we are unarmed against these people [the government].”
In multiple speeches during the year, President Ortega and Vice President Murillo criticized Catholic clergy and accused the Catholic Church of having backed an alleged “coup” against the Ortega-Murillo government in 2018. On October 5, Ortega called Catholic bishops “terrorists” during his campaign launch speech ahead of the November general election. On September 6, Ortega again referred to Catholic priests as “terrorists in cassocks.” In a July 30 speech, Ortega spoke of colonization, stating, “Along with the cross, the sword; along with the cross, robbery; along with the cross, the most brutal crimes against our ancestors.” He added, “Pharisees have not disappeared, they are still there and go around talking as if they were saints, and all you have to do is look and what you find is filth, where there is no respect for God.” Local media interpreted Ortega’s remarks as a clear attack on Catholic clergy.
On June 10, Murillo said during a radio address that Catholic clergy spread “death” and approved of “robbery and theft.” In August, radio commentator William Grigsby, commonly considered an unofficial spokesperson for the government, accused Catholic bishops of conspiring with the U.S. and Spanish ambassadors in Nicaragua to overthrow the Ortega-Murillo government. On June 9, Grigsby said during his radio program that “cassock wearers were next,” alluding to the government’s wave of arbitrary detentions of opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders that began in late May.
In June, Edwin Suarez, a well-known progovernment social media activist with 16,000 Twitter followers, tweeted, “In Nicaragua the Catholic hierarchy is not only a participant in the attempted coup, it is also an actor and director of events of serious violations of the rights of the people since 2015, blackmailing Ortega so that he would hand over power to them.”
On August 11, FSLN National Assembly member Wilfredo Navarro gave an extensive interview to a local televised program in which he singled out Cardinal Brenes and several bishops, calling them “servants of the devil.” Navarro also indirectly accused Father Roman (calling him “that priest from Masaya”) of covering up the alleged killing of a policeman in 2018 by prodemocracy protesters. During the same interview, Navarro said he believed the Catholic Church could face criminal charges for a statement the Archdiocese of Managua Peace and Justice Commission issued on August 10. Navarro said he believed the commission had committed an electoral crime by encouraging voter abstention in the November national election. Catholic leaders stated that the government denied citizens their right to choose their leader because potential opposition candidates had been disqualified or imprisoned.
According to news reports, when the government broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan on December 9 and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan attempted to donate its former embassy building to the Managua Archdiocese. On December 26, however, the Ortega administration blocked Taiwan’s donation and gave the property to the PRC, stating it supported a one-China policy. The Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying all of Taiwan’s properties belonged to the PRC and invalidated the donation to the Managua Archdiocese. Taiwan’s Foreign Relations Ministry condemned the confiscation of the property and the “arbitrary obstruction by the Nicaraguan government of the symbolic sale of its property to the Nicaraguan Catholic Church.”
On November 17, the government abolished the position of the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, designated exclusively to the Holy See representative by presidential decree since 2000. The government said the decision to remove this position would foster equal treatment among chiefs of mission. Some international relations experts said they believed the change was a political move reflecting the growing tension between the Catholic Church and the government.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Catholic Church continued to suspend all religious activities that traditionally generated large crowds such as the celebration of Saint Dominic in Managua and the pilgrimage to Rivas. Notwithstanding the pandemic, the government once again organized and sponsored local religious activities through FSLN-controlled municipal governments, including an August festival in Managua honoring Saint Dominic, the annual pilgrimage to Rivas, the annual celebration of Saint Lazarus in Masaya in March, and the Stations of the Cross in Granada, all of which reportedly garnered hundreds of participants. Vice President Murillo promoted the large gatherings in her daily radio remarks. During the Saint Dominic celebration, the government used a replica image of the statue of Saint Dominic normally carried in a Catholic procession, and the individuals carrying the replica image wore the official colors of the ruling Sandinista party. Catholic clergy said the government manipulated religious traditions and symbols to coopt powerful religious imagery and portray normalcy in a country ravaged by COVID-19 and sociopolitical upheaval. According to a clerical source, the government sought to confuse a segment of the Catholic population and dilute the Catholic Church’s authority by ignoring the Catholic leadership’s recommendations to suspend large activities and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to press reports, on November 9, the government cancelled the operating license of evangelical Protestant television Channel 21, the only channel in the country that since 1991 exclusively broadcast local and foreign evangelical programs. Telecommunications regulator TELCOR cited alleged irregularities in Channel 21’s operations after TELCOR officials made an unannounced visit to the television station. TELCOR revoked Channel 21’s broadcasting license and took the channel off the air the same day. Channel 21 denounced what it called the government’s arbitrary decision to revoke its license. TELCOR also revoked the operating license of evangelical Protestant radio station Nexo 89.5 FM the same day. Channel 21 and Nexo 89.5 FM were owned by family members of evangelical pastor Guillermo Osorno, who ran as presidential candidate in the November election. The closure of the channel and radio station occurred the day after Osorno gave a press conference in which he denounced irregularities in the electoral process.
The government continued to restrict travel selectively for some visa applicants intending to visit the country for religious purposes based on the perceived political affiliation of the applicant’s local sponsor. According to Catholic clergy, a 2016 regulation instructing all churches to request entry authorization for their missionaries or religious authorities continued in effect.
On March 8, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua issued a statement expressing concern regarding new government limitations on residence permits for missionaries. Local media reported that immigration authorities denied entry to two Franciscan friars, Santos Fabian Mejia Sagastume and Javier Lemus, who had resided in the country as missionaries for many years and were citizens of El Salvador. Immigration authorities denied entry to Mejia Sagastume on January 31. They notified him that he was “not eligible for entry” and suspended his residency. On February 16, immigration authorities also denied Lemus entry into the country.
On April 30, immigration authorities notified Friar Damian de Cosme Muratori, originally from Italy and who had lived and served in Nicaragua for 45 years, that his residence permit would not be renewed and that he was only authorized a 90-day stay in the country. Muratori told media he had renewed his residence permit on an annual basis without problems since 1976. Muratori received two 90-day extensions to stay in the country. In both instances, his resident status remained uncertain until the day before his extensions expired, at which point immigration authorities would inform him of a decision to renew his residency, grant an extended 90-day stay, or deport him from the country. He remained in the country at year’s end.
In November, local media reported that immigration authorities at Managua International Airport had seized Monsignor Silvio Fonseca’s passport and did not allow him to leave the country. Immigration authorities reportedly told Fonseca that his passport failed to scan properly, but Fonseca said he had used the same passport without any problems when he traveled to the United States four months prior.
Religiously affiliated NGOs continued to face operational limitations. The Interior Ministry continued to deny or delay legally required annual operations permits and tax exemption approvals. Sources reported that the Interior Ministry continued to deny Caritas, an international Catholic NGO accredited to the country since 1965, its legally entitled tax exemptions, a practice since 2018. Since 2019, Caritas informed donors to stop sending donations because it was unable to retrieve them from Customs. Caritas continued to report that since 2018, it had not received its annually renewable certificate from the Ministry of Interior, which technically authorized it to operate in the country. Caritas sources continued to say the failure to renew the certificate impeded it from receiving tax exemptions, prohibited the importation of materials, and hindered its ability to bring in medical missions as part of its social services. Caritas further reduced its social services because of harassment from government supporters in the communities where it worked.
Bishop Mata told press in January that the government had reduced by 20 million cordobas ($563,000) the allocated budget for the Universidad Catolica del Tropico Seco, a private university run by Mata. Mata stated that the government had reduced the funds, representing more than a 50 percent decrease, in retaliation for his public criticism of the Ortega-Murillo administration. Mata said the stark reduction in funds left the university unable to grant new scholarships for the academic year, and it was struggling to maintain existing scholarships.
Catholic clergy continued to say they believed the government directed or encouraged vandalism and desecration of churches by individuals not directly affiliated with it. According to local media, on May 25, unidentified individuals broke into a Catholic church in the community of San Andres in Boaco and destroyed sacred images. Media reported that on April 11, unidentified individuals broke into Our Lady of Candelaria Church in Chinandega, broke sacred images, and stole money designated for the construction of church buildings.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to religious group representatives, the discretionary power of immigration officials made entry of missionaries from certain countries more difficult. During the year, Central American missionaries from the Balboa Union Church and the Church of Jesus Christ said immigration authorities delayed or questioned their visits for pastoral work. Representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ said two young Nicaraguan missionaries experienced mistreatment and officials did not allow entry into the country in July and August, despite government approval of their missionary visas. Representatives stated there was miscommunication between the National Migration Service and its airport immigration officers. These officers eventually allowed the missionaries to enter the country after repeated engagement between church leaders and immigration authorities.
Baha’i representatives said they decided to have short-term foreign missionaries enter the country on legal 90-day tourist visas due to the complexity of the religious visa process. Some religious leaders suggested that immigration authorities should better educate their officers and airport agents or create a special unit of officers with expertise in processing missionary visas, to prevent problems arising from officers’ abuse of their discretionary authority.
According to a Baha’i representative, during the year Baha’i members encountered administrative difficulties with local and central authorities. Some Baha’is said challenges in resolving such issues resulted from their minority religious status. As an example, they cited informal street vendors who illegally installed kiosks at the entrance of the private road to their temple. The congregation made numerous formal complaints to the local mayor’s office about the illegal kiosks, but without successful resolution. By year’s end, the mayor’s office had taken no action and, according to the Baha’i community, had failed to respond to follow-up telephone calls. The operating concession for a Baha’i radio station in Soloy town in the Ngabe Bugle territory expired during the year, and Baha’i representatives filed for an extension with the Public Services Authority (ASEP), which regulates communications. According to concerned individuals, ASEP officers mistakenly classified their request as a commercial one despite the Baha’is’ status as a registered religious denomination with legal standing as a nonprofit organization. At year’s end, ASEP had not corrected the file nor extended the concession.
Members of non-Catholic religious groups said the constitution was ambiguous, in that it forbade religious discrimination, yet designated Catholicism as the sole religion taught in public schools.
Some religious leaders, including Jewish, Islamic, and evangelical Christian leaders, opposed inclusion of a question in the next national census (date to be determined) about an individual’s religious affiliation. Sources stated that concern about the government mandating a response on religious affiliation and collecting lists of minority religions generally fueled the leaders’ opposition. Leaders cited examples of similar opposition in other countries, including the United States. According to Roman Catholic representatives, however, the church did not oppose including the question. Government officials said the government had no plans to include such a question.
During the year, some indigenous persons declined COVID-19 vaccines due to their religious beliefs. In November, health officials reported on television that some new COVID-19 cases occurred in families that chose not to vaccinate because of their religious beliefs.
Representatives from the Interreligious Institute of Panama said that although authorities generally respected the institute, officials did not always solicit its opinions on decisions that impacted general issues of religious freedom and practice. According to the representatives, the group felt strongly about the need to create a government-level Secretariat for Religious Affairs similar to the existing secretariats for Afro-descendants and persons with disabilities.
At public events, the government continued to invite primarily Roman Catholic clergy to offer religious invocations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The VMW did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on religious groups that did not complete its mandatory registration or reregistration process by the end of the year, extending the deadline indefinitely with the intention of reassessing annually based on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and progress made in implementing a fully virtual registration process. The VMW continued to focus on raising public awareness of the registration law and stated it continued to implement the registration law consistently across religious groups. According to the VMW, once it received all required information and documents from a religious group, it completed the process in 15 days.
The VMW reported that 17 new groups registered during the year, bringing the total of religious groups having active registrations with the government to 586. Of the 586 groups, 407 did not renew their registration during the year, taking advantage of the VMW’s indefinite extension of the renewal period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The VMW stated it considered these groups to be actively registered.
According to the VMW, approximately 50 percent of religious groups were registered at year’s end, compared with 15 percent reported the previous year. VMW representatives attributed the discrepancy to an effort to digitalize VMW records over the past year, allowing more accurate statistics and a better estimate of the number of nonregistered religious groups, which the revised data showed to be much lower than 2020 estimates. Although the VMW continued to offer electronic (email) registration, the requirement to travel to Asuncion to pay registration fees and pick up proof of registration remained a major barrier for submitting and renewing applications.
ICCAN in August began its third attempt to officially register with the VMW, after VMW rejected its second request in 2020. By year’s end, VMW had not approved ICCAN’s request. The VMW said it did not approve ICCAN’s registration due to the inclusion of “Catholic” in its title, making ICCAN’s name not sufficiently distinguishable from the Roman Catholic Church. The VMW had stated there was no other reason for its decision and would approve ICCAN’s registration if the two religious groups could agree on an acceptable change to ICCAN’s official name. An ICCAN representative stated he believed the VMW’s justification was not in accordance with the law, and suggested VMW officials were following instructions from the Roman Catholic Church.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported the Supreme Court during the year concluded three cases from previous years involving individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving hospital blood transfusions against their will. The Supreme Court ruled against two of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ suits and dismissed the third suit following the death of the individual involved. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association stated there were no new reports of forced blood transfusions during the year.
The VMW reported the Ministry of Education provided subsidies to schools of various religious affiliations. The ministry stated it distributed subsidies based primarily on the need to reach certain underserved communities, focusing especially on the underserved rural Chaco region. The ministry continued to subsidize the salaries of hundreds of teachers in registered, nonprofit schools operated by predominantly Roman Catholic religious communities.
According to representatives of the Mennonite community, the government continued to provide subsidies to their schools; Jewish community members said they did not request government subsidies. According to a ministry representative, the ministry maintained an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church governing the allocation of subsidies to schools in areas not served by public schools. The representative also stated that a separate agreement set very similar regulations for subsidy allocation to other religious schools located in underserved areas serving student populations and providing educational or scholarship services to students. Mennonite schools in Boqueron Department continued a consultation process with departmental authorities concerning Mennonite and Ministry of Education curricular priorities.
The government continued to support chaplaincy programs open to all religious groups in the armed forces. The programs included the training of clergy to provide services to members of the armed forces deployed either in combat zones or on peacekeeping missions. The government also continued to allow all registered religious groups to operate in and provide their services within prisons for adults and youth. During the year, however, only Roman Catholic and Protestant groups made use of this option.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, the government registered 166 non-Catholic groups, compared with 156 in 2020. Among the newly registered groups were the International Center of Holistic Theo-Therapy, Peruvian Association of the Sokka Gakkai International, the Hallelujah Christian Community, Church of God of Prophesies, Evangelical Church of the Peruvian Northeast, and United Korean Christian Church of Peru. According to the MOJ and local interfaith groups, the government accepted and approved applications from all interested religious groups, with no reported denials. In December, the MOJ director general for justice and religious affairs and the MOJ director for interreligious affairs (in charge of the state’s relationship with non-Catholic groups) affirmed the government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom and the fair and equal treatment of all religious beliefs before the law.
In May, the Constitutional Court ruled it was unconstitutional to require a religious entity to have a minimum number of members to register with the MOJ. In response, the MOJ amended registry regulations in July, eliminating the requirement for a minimum number of members for a religious group, previously set at 500.
FREPAP, a political party founded by and directly affiliated with the Israelites of the New Universal Pact religious group, lost its status as a political party following results of the April general election. Although FREPAP obtained 8.4 percent of the national vote and 15 congressional seats in the 2020 parliamentary election, it obtained only 4.6 percent in the April election. This result fell short of the 5 percent threshold to obtain congressional representation and retain status as a political party.
According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government provided an annual grant of approximately 2.6 million soles ($655,000) to the Catholic Church for stipends to archbishops and pastors, in accordance with the concordat with the Holy See. Each of the 45 Catholic ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the country also received a monthly subsidy of 1,000 soles ($250) for maintenance and repairs of church buildings, some of them of significant historical and cultural value. Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received subsidies from the government, in addition to these funds. These individuals represented approximately 8 percent of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents. According to Catholic Church representatives, the Church used these and other Church funds to provide humanitarian services to the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation. Similar stipends were not available to other religious groups.
The Interreligious Council of Peru, whose members include the Roman Catholic Church, Islamic Association of Peru, Jewish Association of Peru, Baha’i Community of Peru, Brahma Kumaris of Peru, Methodist Church of Peru, and Union of Evangelical Churches of Peru, among others, continued to engage the MOJ to promote religious freedom principles, such as equal access to government benefits for all religious groups (e.g., tax exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; and visas for religious workers), and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains, all benefits for which the Catholic Church automatically qualifies but for which other religious groups must apply.
Protestant pastors said some non-Catholic soldiers continued to have difficulty finding and attending non-Catholic religious services because by law, only Catholic chaplains may serve in the military.
In February, a judge of the 11th Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a terminally ill woman’s euthanasia request. The court ruled in this specific case that Ana Estrada, who suffered from a degenerative and incurable disease, had the right to die on her own terms. According to media, the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement opposing the decision, saying, “We must remember that euthanasia will always be the wrong path, because it goes against the inalienable right to life, causes the direct death of a human being and, as a result, is an intrinsically evil act.” The bishops also said the court’s decision violated the constitution. The state had an opportunity to appeal the ruling but decided against it. The judiciary elevated the case to the Supreme Court to ratify the 11th Constitutional Court’s decision. The Supreme Court was expected to hear the case in 2022.
In March, the MOJ held a conference on women, religion and religious organizations, and joint efforts to combat family violence. In July, the MOJ held a two-day seminar to mark 10 years since the establishment of the 2011 Religious Freedom Law. In November, the MOJ held a conference on religious freedom and the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence, during which Vice Minister for Human Rights Guillermo Vargas Jaramillo highlighted the importance of the state’s guarantee of religious freedom.
In December, the MOJ published a first-of-its-kind report that reviewed the religious landscape in the decade since the 2011 Religious Freedom Law entered into force. The report provided a historical overview of faith communities in the country and further defined the secular nature of the state under the constitution. It also highlighted the cultural contributions of religious groups in the country and their recent work to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, the government attempted to meet its payment obligations to homes for children as well as the elderly administered by religious organizations but was often hampered by budgetary constraints and a lengthy process for release of funding by the Ministry of Finance. The government, through the Ministry of Education, continued its subsidies to schools managed by religious organizations at the same level as prior years. The government prohibited schools receiving public funds from increasing school fees for the 2021/2022 school year.
The armed forces continued to maintain a staff chaplaincy with Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic clergy available to military personnel.
In prisons, where religious services were normally accessible, COVID-19 measures at times resulted in limited or suspended access.
Throughout the first half of the year, different religious groups, mostly evangelical Protestants, protested the government’s weekend lockdown measures, which included Sunday church closures to prevent COVID-19 transmission. The Association of Full Gospel and Pentecostal Churches in Suriname, along with other religious organizations, petitioned the National Assembly to have their churches reopened. The organizations said the government was infringing on the religious freedom of their congregants by not allowing them to attend church and by limiting access to religious guidance. Other religious organizations had varying opinions on reopening. Representatives for two larger religious organizations, the Moravian Church and the Suriname Islamic Association, told the press that the health and well-being of congregants was more important than reopening during a wave of COVID-19 cases. The government offered religious organizations access to its digital and social media platforms to enable congregants to worship virtually. In early July, the government lifted weekend lockdowns, but churches were not allowed to open until late July, when a protocol for reopening was reached with religious groups.
The Religious Affairs Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs collaborated with different religious organizations to begin the process of standardizing and formally recognizing religious training programs. Formal recognition would allow the ministry to set stipends for clergy under the government wage system. During the year, the process was managed by individual organizations, and there were no minimum requirements. The standardized training developed with support of religious groups was designed to help the government determine who is clergy and the accuracy of the stipends they received. The ministry said it guaranteed the standardization process would not have an impact on recognition of religious organizations.
In public statements, government officials continued to raise the importance of religious freedom, respect for religious diversity, and their commitment to protecting religious minorities. President Santokhi and other government officials noted the country’s religious diversity and the importance of respect for that diversity during public speeches. In a September keynote speech in the Netherlands honoring Anton de Kom, who fought for equity and freedom in Suriname in the 1930’s and 1940’s, President Santokhi pointed to what he stated was the country’s rich cultural and religious diversity and how mutual respect for that diversity resulted in a peaceful and harmonious society. The Ministry of Home Affairs supported the organization of the Inter-Religious Harmony Week in January by promoting and sharing video messages of different religious groups on its social media pages and through government media with the goal of creating understanding and increasing respect for different religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The government’s official commitment to secularism and how it impacted religious groups continued to generate controversy among 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. Throughout the year, several representatives of minority 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.
In May, a local Frente Amplio (FA) party and council member in Rocha Department posted the following comment on Facebook regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict: “Every day I ask myself whether Hitler was so wrong.” Local council members strongly criticized the FA representative and demanded his resignation. His fellow FA members submitted the case to the party’s political conduct tribunal and demanded he be suspended from his party functions until the tribunal made a final decision. Following this condemnation by his party, he subsequently resigned from his council position.
Some non-Christian minority religious groups reiterated 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. The government, however, continued to not designate 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.
In August, the government relaxed its COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, including the number of participants that could attend a religious service or event and the length of a given religious event. 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, such as the prescribed length of a church service.
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.
Religious leaders praised the correction authority protocol standardizing access to religious counseling and religious meeting spaces and expressed the need to have similar protocols for other institutions.
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 end of the year. 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.
In January, the government broadcast a national message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which Minister of Foreign Affairs Bustillo referred to the Holocaust as the “most shameful and horrifying crime committed by men.… It will always be a warning to the entire world of the dangers of hatred, fanaticism, racism and prejudice.” The Minister closed his speech saying, “Whenever we remember the Holocaust and its victims, we do so with the enormous sadness of what was suffered, but also as heirs of the endless love that they left us as legacy and that we keep alive from generation to generation. This is the true triumph, costly, painful, but full of faith and hope. Those who perpetrated such horror have ceased to exist; their victims bloom in memory and in every smile of a child.”
In December, an appeals court ratified a 2019 court ruling in favor of private parties who had found and wished to sell an 800-pound bronze eagle bearing a Nazi swastika recovered from the German battleship Graf Spee. The ship had been scuttled by the Germans in 1939. The ruling required the state to sell the piece and pay the private parties that had retrieved it. In July 2020, the Simon Wiesenthal Center had expressed concern regarding the 2019 ruling and had urged authorities to ensure that the display of these symbols would serve as a warning to future generations of what should never be repeated. The center said that in light of the country’s commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, the government was obligated to prevent “the public use of symbols that recall ethnic cleansing.” Minister of Defense Garcia said government officials would make sure the piece was bought only for pedagogic purposes and did not fall in the hands of neo-Nazis. By year’s end, dealers had not auctioned the eagle.
On November 9, President Lacalle Pou and other government officials and politicians, along with human rights activists, attended the Central Israelite Committee’s commemoration of the 1938 Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Several participating government officials and politicians later posted online about the commemoration, emphasizing the need to remember and reflect, and to foster tolerance and coexistence.
Section II. Status of "Government" Respect for Religious Freedom
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. According to press reports, on August 23-24 in the Mocoties Valley, Merida State, heavy rains caused flooding and mudslides, leaving at least 20 persons dead and more than 14,000 families affected in Merida and nearby states. Auxiliary Bishop of Merida Luis Enrique Rojas officiated at a Mass in Tovar Municipality, Aragua State, one of the municipalities most affected by the flooding. When Rojas returned to deliver food, medicine, household goods, and other humanitarian aid to the affected inhabitants, officials from the Bolivarian National Guard confronted him and prevented him from entering the town. The CEV condemned the actions, stating in a public letter, “We regret and condemn the attitude of some civil authorities, as well as the Bolivarian National Guard, who, far from cooperating, not only prevented access to a large part of the aid sent from various parts of the country, but have also maintained an attitude of indifference and offense towards members of the Church and other institutions.” In a September 2 television appearance, Maduro defended the regime’s actions and described the bishops as “devils in cassocks.” On September 8, ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) Vice President Diosdado Cabello further criticized Rojas’ actions and labelled the Catholic Church in the country a “political party.”
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, Maduro and members of his regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. On May 25, during a Venezuelan Television broadcast, Maduro called Father Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus and a citizen, a “mercenary of the pen” after Sosa said in an interview with the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion that Maduro was the head of a dictatorship.
During a July 21 television broadcast, Maduro accused Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, of meddling in national affairs after the Cardinal sent a letter to FEDECAMARAS, a business chamber, calling for its support towards serious negotiations to resolve the current crisis. Maduro said the letter was a “compendium of hatred, of venom” and described it as full of poison, hatred, intrigue, cynicism, and attacks. Regime Vice President Rodriguez, who was present at the FEDECAMARAS annual assembly, also responded to the Parolin letter, telling the business leaders, “Priests that want to do politics, let them take off their cassocks and do politics.”
The Catholic Church continued to urge the regime to accept international aid to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and declared its willingness to collaborate with the vaccination process. According to the organization Outreach Aid to the Americas, the Catholic Church, working through Caritas, provided food donations and operated feeding programs and health and nutrition services. On May 31, Monsignor Mario Moronta, Bishop of San Cristobal, Tachira State and the First Vice President of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, requested that authorities not politicize COVID-19 vaccinations. Moronta said there was discrimination when individuals requested the regime-issued “homeland card” (carnet de la patria) to get vaccinated, a card that required the holder to maintain a PSUV (regime political party) political affiliation.
Some members of the Jewish community stated the regime and those sympathetic to it, including some regime-affiliated media outlets, used anti-Zionism to mask antisemitism, saying they avoided accusations of antisemitism by replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” CAIV members reported that on May 25, regime “shadow governor [protectorate]” of Tachira State Freddy Bernal called for the downfall of the “murderous Zionist State of Israel” during a speech at a rally that followed fighting between Israel and Hamas that month.
The Catholic Church continued to express its concern regarding the political and social state of the country. On January 7, Bishop of San Felipe and Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto Victor Hugo Basabe referred to the country’s political crisis and expressed concern about what he said was politicians disconnecting from the reality of the country’s citizens and their problems, such as deteriorating public services.
On January 11, the CEV released a pastoral letter on the occasion of its annual assembly expressing concern about what it stated was the regime’s illegal assumption of control of the legislative branch, human rights violations, and the deterioration of basic services and the economy. The CEV called for a “radical change in political leadership” to find solutions for all Venezuelans.
On June 23, the CEV issued a statement rejecting “the gradual implementation of a totalitarian system” in the country. It stressed that the humanitarian, political, and economic crisis in the country was a period of adversity that must be met and overcome. The CEV also expressed concern about the increase in the number of migrants leaving the country and urgently called for generating a “radical change” involving all sectors. The CEV stressed that political leaders must once again connect with the needs of Venezuelans and not make agreements that only favor their own interests.
On July 9, the CEV condemned violence in the Caracas neighborhood of La Cota 905. In a statement it declared, “Once again it shakes us and it saddens us to see how fear, barbarism, abuse, [and] hatred take over the streets of our country, our cities, our popular areas.” The statement highlighted what the conference said was the failure of the Maduro regime to guarantee peace and security and citizens’ loss of confidence in regime authorities.
The Maduro regime promoted the National Religious Council that it created in 2020. As part of this effort, members of the regime helped organize meetings throughout the year with the Evangelical Christian Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a pro-Maduro organization. Evangelical Protestant leaders said members of MOCEV did not speak for their religious communities and lacked credibility among their followers due to MOCEV’s tendency to focus on politics rather than religion and spirituality.
On March 30, the Ministry of Interior, Justice and Peace proposed a new antiterrorism requirement that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other nonprofits, including religious organizations, provide information on the activities, contributions, and names of beneficiaries, which religious communities and NGOs said was sensitive. Under its broad definition of “beneficiaries,” the measure proposed the requirement that humanitarian NGOs provide the identities of the victims and vulnerable communities that they served. The measure had not been implemented as of November, but NGOs expressed concern regarding the possibility it could be and expressed fear the regime was developing a registry to begin implementation.
Independent bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council Independent Fact Finding Mission in its September report, found the regime regularly violated core tenants of the ICCPR.