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Honduras

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a CID Gallup poll released in May, 34 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and 48 percent as evangelical Protestant. According to a 2017-18 Digital Christian Observatory survey, 92 percent of the population is affiliated with a religious organization, with 45 percent identifying as Roman Catholic and 40 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant groups.

Other religious groups, each representing less than 5 percent of the population, include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Antiochian Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, the Moravian Church, and several Anabaptist and Mennonite groups. Evangelical Protestant churches include the Church of God, Assemblies of God, Abundant Life Church, Living Love Church, International Christian Center, and various Great Commission churches. Several evangelical Protestant churches have no denominational affiliation. The Moravian Church has a broad presence in the La Mosquitia Region in the eastern part of the country. Some indigenous groups and Afro-Hondurans practice African and Amerindian faiths or incorporate elements of Christianity, African, and Amerindian religions into syncretistic religious practices and beliefs.

According to a representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Association, there are 79,877 members. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community states there are 23,016 members. The Muslim community states it has 2,695 members, mostly Sunni; approximately 90 percent are converts. The Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic community has approximately 5,000 members. The Baha’i community counts 1,009 members. The Jewish community estimates it has 275 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions as long as that exercise does not contravene other laws or public order. The constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding public office or making political statements. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations. Organizations seeking status as a legal entity must apply to the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization and provide information on their internal organization, bylaws, and goals. Approved organizations must submit annual financial and activity reports to the government to remain registered. They may apply to the Ministry of Finance to receive benefits, such as tax exemptions and customs duty waivers. Unregistered religious organizations do not receive tax-exempt status.

The official NGO registry office – the Directorate of Regulation, Registration, and Monitoring of Civil Associations (DRRSAC) – is located within the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization.

The constitution states public education is secular and allows for the establishment of private schools, including schools run by religious organizations. Public schools do not teach religion; however, private schools may include religion as part of the curriculum. Various religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and evangelical Protestant churches, run schools. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children receive, including religious education. The government dictates a minimum standardized curriculum for all schools. Some private religiously-affiliated schools require participation in religious events to graduate.

The government is a party to the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights, which recognizes the right to conscientious objection to obligatory military service, including for religious reasons.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain entry and residence permits and mandates that a local institution or individual must sponsor a missionary’s application for residency and submit it to immigration authorities. The government has agreements with the CEH, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, to facilitate entry and residence permits for their missionaries. Groups with which the government does not have written agreements are required to provide proof of employment and income for their missionaries.

Foreign religious workers may request residency for up to five years. To renew their residence permits, religious workers must submit proof of continued employment with the sponsoring religious group at least 30 days before their residency expires. According to the immigration law, individuals who “fraudulently exercise their religious profession or office or commit fraud against the health or religious beliefs of citizens of the country, or the national patrimony,” may be fined or face other legal consequences.

The criminal code protects clergy authorized to operate in the country from being required by the court or the Attorney General’s Office to testify regarding privileged information obtained in confidence during a religious confession. The law does not require vicars, bishops, and archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church and comparably ranked individuals from other legally recognized religious groups to appear in court if subpoenaed. They are required, however, to make a statement at a location of their choosing.

The official regulations for the penal system state that penitentiaries must guarantee the free exercise of religion without preference for one specific religion, as long as the kind of worship is not against the law or public order. Prisoners have access to religious counseling from leaders of their faith.

While the government authorizes clergy from all religious groups to conduct marriage ceremonies, it legally recognizes only civil marriages conducted with a lawyer authorized to perform marriage ceremonies.

The official work week is Monday to Saturday, with no exceptions for religious groups that celebrate Friday or Saturday as their Sabbath.

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

Government Practices

Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to express concerns that some schools and other private and public institutions did not grant them leave to observe their Saturday Sabbath because Saturdays were part of the official work week. They cited specifically the Francisco Morazan National Pedagogical University and the Catholic University of San Pedro Sula. They noted the Supreme Court had ruled favorably in 2019 on a constitutional challenge that Adventist students filed in 2015 seeking alternatives to taking classes or exams on Saturdays, but these institutions 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. The Francisco Morazan University secretariat denied the request; the students appealed, and the appeal remained pending at year’s end. One student at the Catholic University submitted a formal petition to the university to comply with the court, but officials denied the petition. Other students said they decided not to pursue further recourse out of fear of additional discrimination and retaliation from their professors.

Some religious organizations, including the interfaith NGO FIH, said the government continued to give preference to religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH. On October 15, the FIH reported government discrimination in residency applications for missionaries, noting the government did not approve or respond to applications of residency extensions for certain religious groups, while favoring applications from the CEH.

At year’s end, the DRRSAC registered 66 religious associations out of a total of 86 applications, compared with 120 registered in 2019. According to the DRRSAC, it did not deny any registration requests by religious associations during the year, but some applications continued to be under review through year’s end.

According to Muslim leaders, members of their community no longer encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits, an improvement from previous years.

In October, the FIH reported the government granted safe-conduct permits for movement during the COVID-19 pandemic only to religious groups covered under the CEH, which represents 388 organizations. FIH representatives said many organizations not belonging to the CEH were limited in their social work because the government provided biosecurity equipment to only 10 FIH member organizations.

A representative of the Catholic Church said Catholic priests were not allowed to enter prisons during the pandemic to give COVID-19-related educational instruction or spiritual counseling. These prohibitions were extended to all religious groups and visitors. Prison authorities said visits, except for emergency situations, were not allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim leaders reported one incident in which individuals who identified as evangelical Protestants appeared at an Islamic community outreach event in February, disrupting the event and making offensive remarks and disparaging comments about Muslims, such as “go back to your country.” Muslim leaders said the evangelical Protestants made threats, forcefully removed hijabs from women, and destroyed religious materials. According to the Muslim leaders, they did not file a complaint.

While Muslim community representatives said they continued to receive a few derogatory messages on social media, including “go back to your country,” the representatives emphasized they received far more positive and supportive comments than negative messages.

The CEH reported its members received threatening messages from unknown individuals seeking to discredit the organization because of its support of a government proposal to provide financial assistance to elderly evangelical Protestant pastors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seventh-day Adventists reported the continued refusal of certain private institutions, including places of employment and schools, to permit them to observe Saturday as their Sabbath.

Representatives of the FIH and the Muslim community each reported conducting community events and outreach to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The FIH, whose members included 94 religious and human rights entities, said it conducted five in-person meetings in January and October, and seven virtual meetings from May through September, as well as 12 additional media appearances. The Muslim community reported it held two in-person outreach events in February and March and two virtual meetings in June and August with other faith groups to deepen interfaith understanding; the events included discussions on common misconceptions about the tenets of Islam.

Cardinal Maradiaga said the Catholic Church provided relief efforts in the aftermath of the two hurricanes, including providing food and other essential items to individuals affected by the hurricanes, regardless of religious affiliation.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires underscored with the Minister of Human Rights the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental right. Embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, and CONADEH to discuss issues of religious freedom, including the importance of respect for minority religious groups and for equal treatment under the law for all religious groups.

Embassy officials continued discussions with religious leaders and members of religious communities, including Roman Catholics, CEH, FIH, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Muslims, regarding societal violence, poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. On November 25, the Charge d’Affaires met with Cardinal Maradiaga to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the two hurricanes and the impact of the pandemic.

On October 28, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders from the Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim, and Baha’i communities to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Participants also discussed the Adventists’ difficulties with schools and other private and public institutions that did not grant leave to Adventist students or employees to observe Saturday as their Sabbath and bureaucratic challenges other groups faced, such as cumbersome registration processes. In addition, participants exchanged ideas on societal violence, poverty reduction, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religious groups.

Peru

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The 2017 national census reported the population as 76 percent Catholic (down from 81 percent in 2007); 14 percent Protestant (mainly evangelical Protestant, up from 13 percent in 2007); 5.1 percent nonreligious (up from 2.9 percent in 2007); and 4.9 percent other religious groups (up from 3.3 in 2007). The other religious groups include Israelites of the New Universal Pact (an evangelical Christian religious group of local origin that blends biblical and Andean religious beliefs, with an emphasis on communal farming life), Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, Orthodox Christians, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

According to the World Jewish Congress, approximately 3,000 Jews reside in the country, primarily in Lima, Cusco, and Iquitos. According to the Islamic Association of Peru, there are approximately 2,600 Muslims, 2,000 in Lima and 600 in the Tacna region. Lima’s Muslim community is approximately half Arab in origin and half local converts, while Tacna’s is mostly Pakistani. Most Muslims are Sunni.

Some indigenous peoples in the Andes and the Amazon practice traditional faiths. Many indigenous citizens from the Andes practice a syncretic faith, blending Catholicism and pre-Columbian beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination and persecution based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of religion, either individually or in association with others. It states every person has the right to privacy of religious conviction. It establishes the separation of religion and state but recognizes the Catholic Church’s role as “an important element in the historical, cultural, and moral foundation” of the country.

A concordat between the government and the Holy See signed in 1980 accords the Catholic Church certain institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers. A religious freedom law exempts Catholic Church buildings, houses, and other real estate holdings from property taxes. Other religious groups often must pay property taxes on their schools and clerical residences, depending on the municipal jurisdiction and whether the group seeks and/or receives tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization. The law exempts Catholic religious workers from taxes on international travel. The government also exempts all work-related earnings of Catholic priests and bishops from income taxes. A 2018 temporary exemption of these taxes for non-Catholic religious groups was in place through December 31. By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.

The MOJ is responsible for engaging with religious groups, through the Office of Catholic Church Affairs or the Office of Interconfessional Affairs (for all other religious groups).

Registration with the MOJ is optional and voluntary. The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government. Religious groups do not have to register to obtain institutional benefits, but doing so allows them to engage directly with the government. The regulations allow all religious groups, registered or not, to apply for tax exemptions and worker or resident visas directly with the pertinent government institutions. Registration is free, the process usually takes one week, and the MOJ helps in completing the application forms.

By law, all prisoners, regardless of their religious affiliation, may practice their religion and seek the ministry of someone of their same faith.

The law mandates all schools, public and private, to provide a course on religion through the primary and secondary levels, “without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.” Public schools teach Catholicism in religion class, and the Ministry of Education requires the presiding Catholic bishop of an area to approve the public schools’ religious education teachers. Parents may request the school principal to exempt their children from mandatory religion classes. The government may grant exemptions from the religious education requirement to secular and non-Catholic private schools. Non-Catholic children attending public schools are also exempt from classes on Catholicism. The law states schools may not academically disadvantage students seeking exemptions from Catholic education classes. According to a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling, government financing for schools run by religious groups is unconstitutional because it is “incompatible with the principle of secularism.” The ruling provides the state must suspend funding for these schools within a reasonable period or establish a general and secular system of subsidies for all private educational institutions regardless of their religious affiliation.

The law requires all employers to accommodate the religious days and holidays of all employees; this accommodation includes allowing an employee to use annual vacation leave for this purpose.

Foreign religious workers must apply for a visa through the National Superintendency for Migration (SNM) of the Ministry of Interior. If the religious group registers with the MOJ, the SNM accepts this as proof the applicant group is a religious organization. If the group does not register with the MOJ, the SNM makes its decision on a case-by-case basis.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the government registered 156 non-Catholic groups, an increase from 148 in 2019. Among the newly registered groups were the Religious Association of the Good Seed of Majes, House of Prayer for All Nations, and the Peruvian chapter of the Ministry of God’s Assemblies Abreu e Lima, all evangelical Protestant groups. According to the MOJ and local interfaith groups, the government accepted and approved the applications from all interested religious groups, and there were no reported denials.

Minister of Justice and Human Rights Ana Cristina Neyra Zegarra met virtually in October with leaders of Protestant and evangelical Christian associations, the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Islamic Association of Peru. Neyra Zegarra thanked the religious minorities for their societal contributions and assured them the government guaranteed the right of religious freedom. The minister stated in-person religious ceremonies at houses of worship, suspended since March due to COVID-19, would resume under strict public-health-based criteria and would not discriminate against or privilege any group.

FREPAP, a political party founded by and directly affiliated with the Israelites of the New Universal Pact religious group, obtained 8.4 percent of the national vote in the January 26 parliamentary election. The result granted FREPAP 15 seats in congress, its best performance since the party’s founding in 1989, and the largest congressional representation of a non-Catholic religious party in the country’s history. All 15 FREPAP members of congress were members of the Israelites of the New Universal Pact.

According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government provided an annual grant of approximately 2.6 million soles ($718,000) to the Catholic Church for stipends to archbishops and pastors, in accordance with the 1980 concordat with the Holy See. Each of the 45 Catholic ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the country also received a monthly subsidy of 1,000 soles ($280) 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 nonaffiliation. Similar stipends were not available to other religious groups.

The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including tax exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; 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. The council continued to discuss the government’s religious freedom regulations, particularly in the context of COVID-19.

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.

The 2018 Constitutional Court ruling against government funding of schools operated by religious organizations did not go into effect while the government reviewed its implementation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interreligious Council continued to promote just and harmonious societies within a framework of respect, tolerance, and dialogue between different faith traditions. In November, the council held a virtual event to observe the International Day for Tolerance, bringing together various religious groups and international organizations such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to demonstrate support by faith communities for migrants, refugees, and displaced persons in the country.

Muslim and Jewish community members continued to state some public and private schools and employers occasionally required their members to use accumulated leave for non-Catholic religious holidays, including Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.

Religious groups and interfaith organizations continued to coordinate with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance, regardless of their religious affiliation, to more than one million displaced Venezuelans who entered the country since 2017. The Catholic Church and various evangelical Protestant churches in Tumbes continued to work with the government, the International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide temporary housing to Venezuelan migrants at the northern border.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to engage with government officials regarding religious freedom, and they discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to Venezuelan migrants in the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While restrictions related to COVID-19 made events and in-person outreach difficult, embassy officials engaged representatives of the Interreligious Council and encouraged religious groups to work together to provide humanitarian assistance to those most affected by the COVID-19 health emergency and its subsequent economic crisis, including Venezuelan migrants in the country. In November, embassy officials participated in the Interreligious Council’s virtual event commemorating the International Day for Tolerance.

Venezuela

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate), compared with 32.1 million in the 2019 midyear estimate – a decrease attributable to the outmigration of millions of Venezuelans. The U.S. government estimates 96 percent of the population is Catholic. The remaining population includes evangelical Protestants, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baha’is, and Jews. Observers estimate as much as 30 percent of the population follows practices of Afro-descendant religions Santeria and Espiritismo, some of which also influence Catholic practices in the country, including in Catholic Church music and festivals.

The ECV estimates 18 percent of the population is Protestant, the majority of whom are members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its numbers at 168,500. The Muslim community numbers more than 100,000 and consists primarily of persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent living in Nueva Esparta State and the Caracas metropolitan area. Sunnis are the majority, with a minority Shia community primarily in Margarita Island in Nueva Esparta State. According to the Baha’i community, its membership is approximately 5,000. According to CAIV, the Jewish community numbers approximately 6,000, with most members living in Caracas. Media estimate there are 5,000 Jews, compared with 30,000 in 1999.

Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition that the practice of a religion does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. A 1964 concordat governs relations between the government and the Holy See and provides for government funding for Catholic Church-run schools. In 2017, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), which the National Assembly, democratically elected in 2015, and the Guaido-led interim government and much of the international community consider illegitimate, passed an anti-hate law criminalizing acts of incitement to hatred or violence. Individuals who violate the law face 10 to 20 years in prison. The law includes 25 articles stipulating a wide array of directives, restrictions, and penalties. The law criminalizes political party activities promoting “fascism, intolerance, or hatred,” which comprise numerous factors, including religion. It also criminalizes individual acts promoting violence or hatred, the publication or transmission of any messages promoting violence or hatred by any media outlet, and the publication of messages promoting violence or hatred on social media. Among the violations are those committed by individuals or media outlets, including by members of religious groups or media associated with a religious group.

The Directorate of Justice and Religion (DJR) in the Maduro-controlled Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace (MOI) maintains a registry of religious groups, disburses funds to religious organizations, and promotes awareness and understanding among religious communities. Each religious group must register with the DJR to acquire legal status as a religious organization. Registration requires declaration of property belonging to the religious group, identification of any religious authorities working directly for it, and articles of incorporation. Religious groups are required to demonstrate how they will provide social services to their communities and to receive a letter of acceptance from the regime-controlled community council in the neighborhood(s) where the group will work. The MOI reviews applications and may delay approval indefinitely. Religious groups must register any new statutes with the DJR.

The law neither prohibits nor promotes religious education in public schools. An 18-year-old agreement between the CEV and the state allows catechists to teach Christian and sacramental values in public schools in preparation for First Communion; this agreement, however, is not enforced.

The law provides for Catholic chaplains to minister to the spiritual needs of Catholics serving in the military. There are no similar provisions for other religious groups.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Government” Practices

“Government” Practices

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. On April 8, GNB officers detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State on the grounds that he lacked permission to hold a public gathering under COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Sifontes installed an improvised altar in front of the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church, which included a cross and a tattered Venezuelan flag. Sifontes then led a procession, remaining in his vehicle the entire time, with a statue of Jesus bearing the cross atop his car through the streets of Las Cocuizas, Monagas State. Parishioners denounced Sifontes’ detention as illegal and arbitrary. Sifontes was released later the same day.

Media reported that NSAGs aligned with the Maduro regime continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, members of the teachers union gathered at the Cathedral of Caracas for Mass prior to a protest against Maduro. Colectivos attacked the teachers in the church, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Teachers and journalists covering the protest reported the colectivos involved in the attack were led by members of the GNB. According to sources, on February 11, members of a colectivo linked to the regime attacked a Catholic soup kitchen and health services clinic in Los Teques, Miranda State. The armed and masked colectivos threatened the occupants, robbed them of their valuables, and beat the soup kitchen’s coordinator so severely she was hospitalized.

There were reports that Maduro representatives continued to prevent clergy opposing the regime from holding religious services. On October 5, the mayor of Barbacoas, in Aragua State, closed down and fired the staff of Catholic radio station The Singing Revolutionary. The station director’s son, Anthony Gonzalez, previously a seminarian at a local seminary, led a religious service on October 4, during which he criticized Maduro for the lack of ambulances, biosafety equipment, and supplies at medical centers needed to transport and treat COVID-19 patients as well as combat the disease.

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, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. In a January 14 homily, Bishop Victor Hugo Basabe – Bishop of the Diocese of San Felipe and Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto – denounced what he called the abuse of power and use of force against the population. Later the same day, Maduro responded to Basabe’s remarks in his annual address to the ANC, in which he accused Basabe of using the homily to manipulate faith for “retrograde, reactionary, and right-wing politics,” and he demanded bishops not conduct politics from the pulpit.

During a July 27 television broadcast, Maduro called on the Catholic Church to use its churches and other places of worship, closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, to house Venezuelans returning from abroad who had contracted COVID. The CEV responded that church facilities, while engaged in the distribution of medicine and humanitarian aid, lacked the necessary equipment and medical infrastructure to provide lifesaving care to COVID patients. CEV representatives stated that Maduro’s demand was an attempt to deflect criticism from his mistreatment of Venezuelans afflicted by the virus. Mariano Parra Sandoval, Archbishop of Coro, Falcon State, suggested Maduro use military installations instead of churches because the former were better equipped to care for COVID-19 patients. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the Maduro regime instead forcibly detained returning COVID-positive Venezuelans in makeshift camps under terrible conditions.

Media reported the Maduro regime regularly accused Catholic laity of being “perverts” and perpetrators of pedophilia who acted with the complicity of Church leadership. On January 22, then-Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, an active-duty National Guard general who later became Minister of Electrical Energy, stated, “Instead of devoting themselves to politics, Catholic authorities should focus on removing priests who engage in these aberrant activities.” He cited the case of Father Jesus Manuel Rondon Molina, of Rubio, Tachira State, killed on January 16 by an individual who said the priest had sexually abused him. On January 20, the CEV issued a statement denying the Church had attempted to cover up abuse allegations and stating the Church had initiated an investigation of Rondon Molina and prohibited him from meeting with minors.

According to media, on March 29, colectivos spray-painted words threatening to attack “the damned opposition” on the walls of the Saint Catalina Church in Carupano, Sucre State, signing the messages with “Bolivarian Fury.” Colectivos adopted the phrase from a March 26 speech by Maduro to launch an intimidation campaign against perceived opponents.

CAIV representatives said Maduro regime representatives continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and that the community placed U.S. interests above those of the country. According to the Anti-defamation League (ADL), most anti-Semitic messaging on social media and other media continued to originate from Maduro and his supporters. Some members of the Jewish community stated the regime and those sympathetic to it, including some media outlets, used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism, saying they avoided accusations of anti-Semitism by replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” During the year, editorials in state-owned and pro-Maduro media outlets accused Guaido and Guaido-nominated representatives of being agents or lobbyists for Zionism. During a September 2 television broadcast, ANC president Diosdado Cabello called opposition politician David Smolansky “an agent of Zionism, the most murderous of Zionist assassins.”

Regime-controlled news media and regime-friendly social media posts circulated theories that linked the COVID-19 pandemic to Israel and Jews. In a May 15 social media post, Basem Tajeldine, an analyst for state-owned media outlet TeleSur, characterized Israel as a virus, calling the “IsraHell virus as much of a killer as COVID-19, eating the lungs of the Palestinian people from the 1947 Nakba to today.”

Members of the Maduro regime continued to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. On June 12, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court appointed Luis Fuenmayor Toro, known for his statements questioning the existence of the Holocaust, to the National Electoral Council.

On October 19, the CEV released a pastoral letter, “On the social, economic, moral and political situation of the country,” that stated “both the ruling party and the opposition do not present a project for the country that is able to bring together and convince the majority of the Venezuelan people to live in justice, freedom and peace” and that called for “a change of attitude in all the political leaders.” According to the CEV letter, and in reference to what it termed the fraudulent December 6 legislative elections, “The electoral event scheduled for next December 6, far from contributing to the democratic solution of the political situation we are experiencing today, tends to worsen it,” and, “It is immoral to hold elections when people suffer the consequences of the pandemic, lack the minimum conditions necessary for their survival, and there are no transparent rules and verification mechanisms that should characterize an electoral process.”

In response to the creation in April of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council by religious groups not associated with Maduro, the regime created its own National Religious Council that included representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, evangelical Protestant, and Afro-descendant communities, as well as the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches. Observers criticized the move as an attempt to politicize religious communities and create the appearance of support for the Maduro regime.

Throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime met with the Evangelical Christian Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a pro-Maduro organization. Leaders of the Evangelical and Baptist Churches said members of MOCEV were unknown to them and did not speak for their religious communities. ECV Vice President Jose Pinero said he believed MOCEV may have received benefits from the regime in exchange for its political support.

The Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela, whose foundation Maduro announced in December 2019, had not opened by year’s end. Members of the Catholic and Evangelical communities rejected the initiative, stating it was an attempt to “buy their conscience,” and they voiced concern that any such institution would demonstrate an ideological bent in favor of the Maduro. On February 13, Jose Vielma Mora, Maduro’s Vice President for Religious Affairs, called for the creation of religious workshops and educational programs at universities to build religious tolerance. Observers criticized the announcement as “political interference” and an attack on the independence of the religious and university sectors. Student leaders pointed out the impracticality of such programs, given the regime’s refusal to fund university budgets, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which, they said, limited the ability of universities to hold classes of any type.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Articles published on the online newspaper Aporrea stated COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed by Israel, and that Zionists used the pandemic to destabilize the country and foment a coup against Maduro.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. According to its founding members, the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law. Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas and CEV Secretary General Jose Trinidad Fernandez said the council was “a structure of reflection and action based on plurality, whose contribution will generate consensus to mitigate the serious problems that our society is experiencing.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States continues to recognize the authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly and of Juan Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela and does not recognize the Maduro regime as a government. In 2019, the Department of State announced the temporary suspension of operations of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and announced the opening of the VAU, located at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. The VAU is the U.S. mission to Venezuela, which continues engagement with the Government of Venezuela and outreach to the Venezuelan people. During the year, the VAU maintained close contact with the Guaido-led interim government to discuss actions by the Maduro regime that infringe upon religious freedom and other human rights.

VAU officials communicated regularly with a wide range of religious communities and leaders in the country to discuss the treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitic rhetoric by the Maduro regime and its supporters, and reprisals on some faith groups that disagree with Maduro’s political agenda. In conversations with embassy officials, religious leaders expressed their concern that the continued presence of the Maduro regime would only further the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the country, and that criticism of Maduro would increase hostility towards faith communities. VAU officials held meetings with representatives from the CEV, ECV, CAIV, and the Muslim community. Each community expressed interest in maintaining communications and exploring possible outreach programs in the future. The VAU also communicated the value of religious freedom in interviews with media outlets and on digital media.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future