The constitution, laws, and executive decrees provide for freedom of religion and worship and prohibit discrimination based on religion. The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but not as the state religion. In March the Ministry of Education issued a resolution allowing girls attending public schools in the provinces of Panama City and Herrera to wear the hijab. Public schools continued to teach Catholicism, but parents could exempt their children from religion classes. Some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses and cited the level of government support given to the Catholic Church in preparation for the January 2019 World Youth Day. Local Catholic organizers continued to invite members of other religious denominations to participate. Some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event.
On August 16, the Interreligious Institute of Panama, an interfaith organization, held a public gathering entitled, “Interfaith Coexistence towards a Culture of Peace.” Approximately 100 individuals attended. The institute’s objectives included providing a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promoting mutual respect and appreciation among various religious groups. On August 29, the Panama Chapter of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Cultural Center hosted its Second Interreligious Dialogue with panelists from the Baha’i Spiritual Community, Kol-Shearith Jewish Congregation, Krishna-Hindu community, and Catholic Church.
Embassy officials met on several occasions with government officials and raised questions about fairness in distribution of education subsidies for religious schools and the need for equal treatment of all religious groups before the law. The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met frequently with religious leaders to discuss government treatment of members of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions and treatment of members of religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (July 2018 estimate). The Ministry of Health estimates 69.7 percent of the population is Catholic and 18 percent evangelical Protestant. Episcopalian (part of the Anglican Communion) and Methodist bishops state their communities have 11,000 and 1,500 members, respectively; the Buddhist community reports 3,000 members; and the Lutheran Church reports 1,000 members. Smaller religious groups, found primarily in Panama City and other larger urban areas, include Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, Pentecostals, and Rastafarians. Baptists and Methodists derive their membership in large part from the African Antillean and expatriate communities.
Jewish leaders estimate their community to number 15,000 members, centered largely in Panama City. The Muslim community, largely comprising Arab and Pakistani-origin individuals, and mostly Sunni, numbers approximately 14,000 and is centered primarily in Panama City, Colon City, and Penonome, with smaller congregations in David and Santiago in the western part of the country. There are approximately 850 Rastafarians, most of whom live in Colon City and La Chorrera. Indigenous religions, including Ibeorgun (prevalent among the Guna community), Mama Tata and Mama Chi (prevalent among the Ngobe Bugle community), and Embera (prevalent among the Embera community), are found in their respective indigenous communities located throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution, laws, and executive decrees prohibit discrimination based on religious practices and provide for freedom of religion and worship, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected. The constitution recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but does not designate it as the state religion. It limits the public offices religious ministers and members of religious orders may hold to those related to social assistance, education, and scientific research. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion. The constitution prohibits discrimination toward public servants based on their religious practices or beliefs.
The constitution grants legal status to religious associations, permitting them to manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law. If groups decline to register, they may not apply for grants or subsidies. To register, a group must submit to the Ministry of Government (MOG) a power of attorney, charter, names of the board members (if applicable), a copy of the internal bylaws (if applicable), and a four balboa ($4) processing fee. Once the MOG approves the registration, the religious association must register the MOG’s resolution in the Public Registry. Registered religious associations must apply to the Directorate of Internal Revenue of the Ministry of Economy and Finance to receive clearance for duty-free imports. The government may grant government properties to registered religious associations upon approval by the Legislative Tax Committee and the cabinet. The law states income from religious activities is tax exempt as long as it is collected through such activities as church and burial services and charitable events.
The constitution requires public schools to provide instruction on Catholic teachings. Parents may exempt their children from religious education. The constitution also allows for the establishment of private religious schools. It is illegal to base enrollment of students in private schools on religion. Students of a faith separate from their educational institution are allowed to practice their religion freely.
Immigration law grants foreign religious workers temporary missionary worker visas they must renew every two years, for up to a total of six years. Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests and nuns are exempt from the two-year renewal requirement and issued six-year visas because of the constitutional provision allowing all religions to worship freely, with no limitation other than “respect for Christian morality.” Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, as well as other religious workers, are also eligible for the special six-year visa; however, they must submit additional documentation with their applications. These additional requirements include a copy of the organization’s bylaws, the MOG-issued registration certificate, and a letter from the organization’s leader in the country certifying the religious worker will be employed at its place of worship. The application fee is 250 balboas ($250) for all religious denominations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Interreligious Institute of Panama, an interfaith committee made up of representatives of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and other Protestant churches, Salvation Army, Colon Islamic Congregation, the Baha’i Faith, and Kol Shearith Jewish Congregation, continued to meet several times during the year. The institute’s objectives included providing a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promoting mutual respect and appreciation among the various religious groups. On August 16, the institute held a public gathering where a noted Baha’i representative, the Kol-Shearith Jewish rabbi, a well-known evangelical television personality, the vice rector of St. Mary’s Catholic University, a secular Episcopalian, and the newly arrived Israeli ambassador, who is a member of the Israeli Druze community, spoke before a crowd of approximately 100 individuals on “Interfaith Coexistence Towards a Culture of Peace.”
On August 29, the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Cultural Center – Panama Chapter hosted its Second Inter-Religious Dialogue, entitled “A Step Towards Peace: (Working) Together for a Collective Happiness.” Leaders of the Baha’i Spiritual Community, the Kol-Shearith Jewish Congregation, the Krishna-Hindu community and a Catholic priest participated as panelists. Participants discussed human rights, humane education, and the role of civil society in achieving peace and happiness. An observer of the dialogue said participants agreed all persons had the right to practice the religion they wanted and with the denomination they desired. They also agreed all practitioners should move beyond simply tolerating others towards relations of mutual respect.
Local Catholic organizers continued to invite members of other religious denominations to host World Youth Day participants to expose them to other faiths. Members of the Interreligious Institute noted plans to host World Youth Day participants in the homes of persons of Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish, and non-Catholic Christian faiths.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials periodically met with officials of the Ministry of Education and the Ombudsman’s Office to discuss government policies regarding the equal treatment of all religious groups and individuals, including those belonging to religious minorities. They also inquired about pending religious discrimination claims submitted to the government, including those regarding alleged unfairness in government allocation of education subsidies for religious schools.
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met several times with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Rastafarian, Baha’i, Episcopalian, Lutheran, other Protestant, and evangelical Protestant leaders, religious groups, and community organizations. They discussed religious freedom issues, including government treatment of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions.
In November the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials joined the Kol-Shearith Jewish Congregation for Shabbat service, where the Charge delivered remarks in memory of the victims of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh and thanked the community for its solidarity.
Embassy social media channels were used periodically throughout the year to commemorate holidays of various religions and recognize International Religious Freedom Day in October.