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Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. There is no official state church or religion, but the law says the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” The constitution states all religions and churches are equal before the law. A 1998 Constitutional Court ruling upheld the right of traditional authorities to enforce the observation of and participation in traditional religious beliefs and practices on indigenous reserves. More recent rulings have referred to the 1998 decision to reaffirm the right of indigenous governors to prohibit the practice of certain religions on indigenous reserves. A concordat between the Holy See and the government, made into law, recognizes marriages performed by the Catholic Church, allows the Church to provide chaplaincy services, and prohibits members of the clergy from being compelled into public service, including military service. The law prohibits any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.

The MOI is responsible for legally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, as well as keeping a public registry of religious entities. Entities legally recognized by the MOI can then confer legal recognition, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated groups sharing the same beliefs. The application process requires submission of a formal request and basic organizational information, including copies of an act of constitution and an estimation of the number of members, to obtain legal recognition. The government considers a religious group’s total membership, its degree of acceptance within society, and other factors, such as the organization’s statutes and its required behavioral norms, when deciding whether to grant the religious group legal recognition. The MOI is authorized to reject requests that are incomplete or do not fully comply with established requirements. The MOI provides a free web-based registration process for religious and faith-based organizations seeking recognition. Legally recognized entities may collect funds and receive donations, establish religious education institutions, and perform religious services not including marriages. Unregistered entities may still perform religious activities without penalty, but may not collect funds or receive donations.

The state recognizes as legally binding religious marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and the 13 religious groups that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. This agreement enables non-Catholic religious groups to engage in a number of activities previously restricted to the Catholic Church, such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance in prisons, hospitals, military facilities, and educational institutions. Under this agreement members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor affiliates must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage. Non-Catholic religious groups seeking to provide chaplaincy services and conduct state-recognized marriages must also solicit formal state recognition from the MOI.

The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the education their child receives, including religious instruction. No religious component exists in the public school curriculum. Religious groups, including those that have not acceded to the public law agreement, may establish their own schools, provided they comply with Ministry of Education requirements. A Constitutional Court ruling obligates schools to implement alternative accommodations for students based on their religion, which could include students at religious institutions opting out of prayers or religious lessons.

The law imposes a penalty of one to three years in prison and a fine of approximately 5.3 million to eight million Colombian pesos (COP) ($1,770 to $2,670) for violations, including discrimination based on religion. The penal code also contains a chapter prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of religious beliefs.

A Constitutional Court ruling states citizens, including members of indigenous communities, may be exempt from compulsory military service if they can demonstrate a serious and permanent commitment to religious principles that prohibit the use of force. Conscientious objectors who are exempt from military service are required to complete alternative, government-selected public service.

Foreign missionaries must possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who are members of religious organizations legally recognized and registered with the MOI. Foreign missionaries must have a certificate from either the MOI or church authorities confirming their religious group is registered with the ministry when they apply for the visa. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a registered religious group confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. The visa application also requires a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious group stating the organization accepts full financial responsibility for the expenses of the applicant and family, including funds for return to their country of origin or last country of residence. Applicants must explain the purpose of the proposed sojourn and provide proof of economic means. A Constitutional Court ruling stipulates that no group may force religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future