Section I. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. There is no state religion. Nevertheless, the preamble to the Constitution makes a very strong affirmation that "the nation of Belize shall be founded upon principles which acknowledge the supremacy of God."
Under the Constitution, freedom of religion is part of a broader protection--that of freedom of conscience. In addition, the Constitution provides that no one shall be compelled to take an oath that is contrary to a person's religion or belief.
There are no special registration requirements or fees for religious organizations, and legal incorporation for a religion or denomination is a simple matter. Property taxes are not levied against churches and other places of worship. However, property taxes are levied against other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis such as the pastor's/priest's residence.
The country's population of only a quarter million includes a growing Mestizo population (44 percent); a diminishing Creole component (31 percent); a stable Mayan element (Ketchi Maya 4 percent; Mopan Maya 4 percent); a disputed number of Garifuna (estimates run between 7 to 10 percent); and a small number of East Indians (3 percent), Arabs, Asians, Mennonites, Northern Europeans, and immigrant Americans. Most citizens are Roman Catholic (58 percent). Even when Creoles predominated, Roman Catholicism was the principal faith. At one time, 80 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, which underlies the Church's continuing influence in society.
Despite the long period of British colonial rule, only 7 percent of the population are Anglicans. Another 6 percent are Pentecostals. Other faiths and denominations have fewer than 10,000 members. Among them are Methodists (4.2 percent), Seventh-Day Adventists (4.1 percent), and Mennonites (4 percent). There are approximately 5,000 Hindus and Nazarenes and modest numbers of Baha'i, Baptists, Buddhists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, Rastafarians, and Salvation Army members, all of whom are able to proselytize freely. Except for the Mennonites and Pentecostals who mostly live in the rural districts of Cayo and Orange Walk, followers of these minority faiths tend to live in Belize City. Roman Catholics are numerous throughout the country and constitute the majority faith in all but one of the country's six districts. In Belize district, Catholics hold a plurality but Anglicans constitute over 27 percent of the population. Only about 6 percent of citizens identify themselves as nonbelievers or members of no religious congregation. There were no reports of the mistreatment of atheists or agnostics.
The Constitution stipulates that religious communities may establish "places of education" and states that "no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community." Although there is no state religion, separation of church and state is ill-defined in the country's educational system, which maintains by statute a strong religious curriculum. The curriculum ties "spirituality" with social studies courses. It requires in both public and private schools that primary school youngsters, from kindergarten through sixth grade, receive 220 minutes of religious instruction and chapel every week. However, school-exit exams do not have a section on religion. There are efforts underway to lessen the religious component of the school day, but most citizens likely would object to a strictly secular school day. Roman Catholic holy days are routinely school holidays. However, the Constitution forbids any educational institution from compelling a child to receive religious instruction or attend any religious ceremony or observance without his consent or, if under the age of 18, the consent of the child's parents. This constitutional safeguard is particularly important because most of the country's primary and elementary schools, high schools, and colleges are church-affiliated.
The Constitution also stipulates that no one shall be required to receive religious instruction or attend services without whose consent while serving in the armed forces or detained in prison or in any corrective institution.
In order to help maintain religious harmony, the Constitution reserves the right of the Government to intervene in religious matters "for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons," including the right to observe and practice any religion "without the unsolicited intervention of members of any other religion."
Under the country's newly revised immigration and nationality act, foreign religious workers are permitted to enter the country and proselytize; however, they must be registered and purchase a religious worker's permit. The yearly fee is modest. There is a steady stream of religious workers and missionaries from the United States to Belize. Besides preaching, these visitors are involved in building and/or renovating schools and churches, providing free medical and dental care, and distributing donated food, clothing, and home fixtures.
Clergy preach, teach, and train freely.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who were abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Extortion attempts have been made against Mennonite communities; however, these incidents do not appear to have been due to the religion of the victims. The motive for targetting Mennonites seems to be monetary because some are very prosperous by the country's standards.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
Relations among the faiths are harmonious. Religious groups occasionally join forces in ecumenical efforts to distribute goods to the needy, clean up neighborhoods, alert the public to the dangers of sexual promiscuity, fight crime, protect children, and carry out similar endeavors.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. The Deputy Chief of Mission met with a number of religious leaders throughout 1998 to listen to their concerns.
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