The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states all persons are equal before the law. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration. Some clergy and faith-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers said police and other government agents continued to arbitrarily detain, question, or search young congregants and youth leaders because of their ministry work with active and former gang members. According to sources, while many religious communities focused on education and youth development programs, particularly in the area of violence prevention, intimidation of religious individuals did not appear to be intended as persecution based on their religion. During the year, President Nayib Bukele, of Palestinian background, continued to be the target of anti-Muslim commentary, mainly on Twitter, by some of his political opposition. On September 11, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 133 years and four months in prison for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuit priests at the Central American University. On October 29, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court in El Salvador dismissed the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes for their alleged roles in those killings. According to press reports, this ruling favored former President Alfredo Cristiani, accused of being an intellectual author of the killings.
On February 7, the daily newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported the First Sentencing Court of Sonsonate sentenced Abraham Mestizo, a former sacristan accused of killing Catholic priest Cecilio Perez Cruz, to 25 years in prison for aggravated homicide. Although a letter found near the priest’s body suggested that the MS-13 gang had killed the priest for not paying extortion fees, the court ruled out any gang involvement. On September 9, unknown assailants killed three men who were praying near the Cristo Te Llama Church, an evangelical Protestant church in San Martin, San Salvador Department. Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian groups continued to report that members of their churches could not reach their respective congregations due to fear of gang crime and violence. According to widespread media reports, gang activity continued to create security concerns at a national level, which affected the general population, including members of religious groups, but was not based on religious discrimination.
During a meeting with the ombudsman for human rights on October 9, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation. The Ambassador tweeted in support of International Religious Freedom Day on October 27. In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups during the year, embassy officials continued to discuss the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories, and they stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.