The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The ombudsman for human rights monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for violation of the free exercise of religion.
The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects. The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma. Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention. Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years. There were no prosecutions under this law during the year.
The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of president, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions. The clergy may not belong to political parties. The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.
The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government. The constitution gives legal status to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements. Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship. To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) within the Ministry of Governance. The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, function of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues. DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law. Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette. DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.
By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution. Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas. Religious groups must be registered in the country in order to be eligible for this special residence visa for religious activities.
Public education is secular. The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support. Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools. Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion. All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On April 6, the First Appellate Court upheld the original 30-year sentence of Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, handed down in 1992 for his role in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests. The court also upheld the 1992 acquittals of four ex-soldiers accused of participating in the killings, whom authorities had arrested in February 2016. The court stated it upheld the four acquittals because the courts could not retry the accused for the same crime. On August 18, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled against enforcing the INTERPOL arrest warrant issued for the 13 remaining former members of the military accused in a Spanish court of the Jesuit priests’ killing, citing previous decisions in this case that Spanish courts did not have primary jurisdiction in this matter. On November 28, former Vice Minister for Public Security (1989-92) Inocente Orlando Montano was extradited to Spain from the United States for his alleged involvement in the 1989 killings. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN-backed Truth Commission Report characterized the killing of the Jesuit priests as a politically motivated crime carried out in the context of the civil war by military agents who believed the priests supported, or worked on behalf of, guerilla elements.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights again reported it had not received notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. The ombudsman stated she was receptive to the importance of protecting the rights of all individuals regardless of the person’s religious or other identity and was committed to acting accordingly.
According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 139 new requests for registration of religious groups from January through November 3. Of these, the Ministry of Governance approved 63, and 76 were pending. Religious groups did not report any excessive delays in the processing of registration applications. The ministry reported it had denied one application due to the group’s lack of required documents.