The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. By law, the Belize Council of Churches (BCC), a board including representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC), alternate in appointing one individual, the “church senator,” to the Senate with the Governor General’s concurrence. In August, authorities arrested and charged an evangelical Protestant pastor under the COVID-19 state of emergency regulations, which limited gatherings to under 10 persons, after he led a congregation of 16 persons in worship. In September, the government withdrew the introduction of the Equal Opportunities Bill (EOB) after the Belize Council of Churches (BCC) said it could not support it in its “current form.” Many religious groups opposed the EOB, stating that the government forced the bill through the approval process without consulting them and that the EOB provided no specific protections on the basis of religion or personal belief. In December, the Governor General appointed Reverend Alvin Moses Benguche, a Methodist Bishop, as the new church senator representing all religious groups, on the BCC’s recommendation following the November parliamentary election.
Religious groups continued collaboration with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out missionary work in the country. The interfaith Belize Chaplain Service (BCS) continued to promote several initiatives, including counseling services for relatives of crime victims and for police officers, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public.
U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in meetings with government officials and encouraged the government’s engagement with a wide spectrum of religious groups. The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including Anglican Bishop Philip Wright, Catholic Bishop Lawrence Nicasio, and representatives of religious minorities to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on public engagement and assembly, the embassy used social media to highlight the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The government does not require religious groups to register, but some registered groups may receive tax-exempt status. In November, the Quebec Court of Appeal reduced the sentence of a man to 25 years before eligibility for parole after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for the 2017 killing of six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec. In November and December, a Quebec court concurrently heard challenges by four groups of plaintiffs, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the English Montreal School Board, a Quebec teachers union, and individuals to strike down as unconstitutional a provincial law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The law remained in force through year’s end. Provincial governments imposed societal restrictions on assembly, including for all faith groups, to limit the transmission of COVID-19, but some religious communities said provincial orders and additional measures were discriminatory. Quebec authorities imposed a temporary mandatory COVID-19 quarantine on a Hasidic Jewish community in a suburb of Montreal that some members said was discriminatory because it applied only to Jews, although the religious community had initiated the quarantine voluntarily. Some members of Hutterite colonies in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta said they experienced societal discrimination outside their communities due to provincial governments publishing outbreaks of COVID-19 in Hutterite communities. In January, Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge announced plans to abolish the province’s ethics and religious culture course, compulsory in all Quebec schools since 2008 and taught from grades 1 to 11, with the exception of Grade 9. In May, Public Schools of Saskatchewan filed an application with the Supreme Court to appeal a March ruling by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal that the provincial government continue to fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools. The public school plaintiffs stated the case had national implications, including for publicly-funded Catholic schools in Alberta and Ontario, and that conflicting judgments from lower courts required clarity from the country’s top court. In August, the Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled again in favor of two Muslim students barred in 2011 from praying at their nondenominational private school after the Supreme Court returned the case to the commission for a new hearing. The school said it would appeal the second finding of discrimination
Reports continued of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including cases of violence, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and vandalism. In December, Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2019 showing the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes was 608 incidents, approximately 7 percent lower than in 2018. The B’nai B’rith League Canada for Human Rights recorded 2,207 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, compared with 2,041 in 2018. On September 18, police charged a male suspect with first-degree murder in the September 12 killing of a congregant in the parking lot of the International Muslim Organization of Toronto mosque in Rexdale, a Toronto neighborhood. Media reports linked the male suspect to white supremacist postings online. Toronto Police Services continued its investigation through December and did not rule out bringing additional hate crime charges. Unidentified individuals damaged statues outside Buddhist temples in Montreal in a series of attacks in February and March, including lion statues symbolizing protection smashed on two different occasions with a sledgehammer at the Quan Am Temple. In January, an unidentified individual pelted the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa with eggs days after the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Embassy, consulate, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the government. Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance through engagement with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and minority religious groups. The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion. It funded two grants to Liberation75, organizations formed to mark the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust, combat anti-Semitism, and promote education and remembrance. In January, the Consul General in Quebec City hosted an event with representatives of One World Strong, an NGO that offers peer-to-peer support to survivors of terrorism, and the survivors of the 2017 attack at a Quebec City mosque. On September 24, the Consul General hosted 11 Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, and indigenous animist faith leaders at an interfaith breakfast in which they discussed religious freedom and the impact of COVID-19 on their communities. The embassy and consulates amplified activities and policy content from senior Department of State officials in Washington through social media.
The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. The constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Affairs (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero and mostly involved religious minorities. Government officials and leaders within the Catholic Church continued to state the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not attacks based on religion. According to media reports, in May, an indigenous community in the state of Chiapas expelled six evangelical Protestant families. Local community authorities arrested and jailed the families for not practicing Catholicism, according to the families. In October, media reported that local community leaders drove out 33 evangelical Protestants from a neighborhood of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, because they did not adhere to the community’s traditional faith. In July, the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, Jalisco. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism and are thus more vulnerable to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were two reported killings of evangelical Protestant pastors, and attacks and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported unidentified individuals killed two religious leaders and kidnapped three others. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified the country as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 12th year in a row, stating more than two dozen priests were killed over the past decade and emphasizing the ranking reflected the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups singled out Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to media, in March, demonstrators in several marches organized for International Women’s Day vandalized church buildings, public structures, and businesses.
Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised religious freedom and freedom of expression issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to these issues. In January, the Ambassador visited Colegio Israelita and gave brief remarks at its Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The Ambassador stressed the United States would continue to defend human rights as well as combat anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers focusing on humanitarian issues and expressed support for religious tolerance.