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Department Seal 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


The Constitution provides for the freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Both government policy and the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contribute to the free practice of religion.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. There is no state religion; however, the Constitution recognizes explicitly the separate legal personality of the Catholic Church.

The Government does not establish requirements for the recognition of religions. Members of a religion need not register simply in order to worship together. However, the Government does require religious congregations (as well as other non-religious associations and nongovernmental organizations) to register as legal entities in order to be able to transact business. Such legal recognition is necessary, among other things, for a congregation to be able to rent or purchase premises, enter into contracts, and enjoy tax exempt status. The Government does not charge religious groups a registration fee.

The Catholic Church does not have to register as a legal entity. For non-Catholic congregations, the process for establishing a legal personality is relatively straightforward and the requirements do not vary from one denomination to another. A congregation must file a copy of its bylaws and a list of its initial membership with the Ministry of Government. The congregation must have at least 25 initial members and the bylaws must reflect that the congregation will pursue religious or spiritual purposes. Applications are rejected only if the organization does not appear to be devoted to a religious purpose, appears to be in pursuit of illegal activities, or engages in activities that appear likely to threaten the public order. There were no reports that the Government rejected any group's application.

The Peace Accord regarding the rights of indigenous people, which was signed in 1995, includes provisions protecting the exercise of indigenous religious beliefs and practices. This agreement also protects sacred and ceremonial indigenous sites as archaeological preserves. The agreement called for Congress to pass legislation to amend the Constitution in order to "recognize, respect, and protect the distinct forms of spirituality practiced by the Mayan, Garifuna, and Xinca" people. Congress subsequently passed a law containing 50 proposed constitutional amendments, including this amendment, but in May 1999, the package was defeated in a popular referendum.

Religious Demography

Historically, Guatemala has been an overwhelmingly Catholic country. However, in recent decades, evangelical Protestant groups have gained a significant number of members. Although there is no accurate census of religious affiliation, some sources estimate that approximately 60 percent of the population are Catholic and approximately 40 percent are Protestant, primarily evangelical. Other groups are represented, including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and small communities of Jews and Muslims. Although many persons nominally affiliated with Catholicism or a Protestant denomination do not actively practice their religion, few citizens consider themselves atheists. There are no accurate statistics on church attendance, although various sources report that it is very high in the evangelical community and somewhat lower in the Catholic community.

The largest Protestant denomination is the Assembly of God, followed by the Church of God of the Complete Gospel, and the Prince of Peace Church. There are numerous other Protestant denominations represented, some specific to Central America and others, such as Presbyterians, Baptists, and Mennonites, which are represented worldwide. Within the indigenous population, a significant proportion practices elements of traditional Mayan spirituality, generally in conjunction with another religion, most commonly Catholicism. Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of syncretistic practices than the Catholic Church, which reportedly accepts any pre-Columbian or traditional practices that are not in direct conflict with Catholic dogma.

Catholic and Protestant churches are distributed throughout the country and their adherents are distributed among all major ethnic groups and political parties. However, evangelical Protestants appear to be represented in greater proportion in the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), which became the governing party when it won the presidency and a majority in Congress in the fall 1999 elections. The FRG is headed by former de facto president and retired General Efrain Rios Montt, now President of Congress and a long-time elder of the Church of the Word.

The Government does not have any organized programs to promote interfaith understanding or dialog.

Foreign missionaries are required to obtain a missionary visa, which is issued for a period of up to 1 year and is renewable. Such visas require a sponsor who is able and willing to assume financial responsibility for the missionary while he or she is in the country. With a missionary visa, foreign missionaries may engage in all lawful activities, including proselytizing.

The Government does not subsidize religious groups directly. However, some sources report that the Government occasionally provides financial assistance to private schools established by religious organizations. The Constitution permits religious instruction in public schools, although public schools are not required to provide such instruction. There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction in public schools. Accordingly, when provided, such instruction tends to be programmed at the local level.

Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom

In January 2000, authorities arrested a former Presidential Military Staff (EMP) specialist, an active duty EMP captain, and a retired colonel for the April 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi (See Section II).

In the case arising out of the 1994 murder of evangelical minister Pascual Serech in Chimaltenango, charges remained pending against military commissioner Victor Roman, an alleged collaborator in the crime and also the accused perpetrator of the 1995 murder of evangelical pastor Manuel Saquic. Roman remained at large despite an order for his capture and the offer of a reward.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been 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.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the various religious communities are generally amicable, if distant. According to members of the Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and Jewish communities, complaints of discrimination on the basis of religion are rare. There were no reports of violence or widespread societal discrimination against religious minorities. However, there have been isolated reports of mob lynchings being carried out in remote areas against persons suspected of sorcery.

On July 27, 1999, unidentified assailants shot and killed Mayan priest Raul Coc Choc at his home in the department of Chimaltenango. Coc Choc was a leader of the National Association of Mayan Priests; members of the board reported that he had received numerous death threats over the telephone. Religious and indigenous leaders called for a thorough investigation. After detaining and later releasing a suspect, the judge ordered the case provisionally closed for lack of evidence, thereby enabling the prosecutors to continue their investigation.

The April 26, 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Coordinator of the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights, occurred just 2 days after his delivery of the final report of the office's "Recovery of Historical Memory" project, which detailed many of the human rights abuses committed during the 36-year-long internal conflict. Because the Bishop's murder occurred so soon after his public delivery of the report, which held the military, military commissioners, and civil self-defense patrol forces responsible for approximately 80 percent of war-related human rights violations, some observers suspect a political motive for the crime. The authorities rearrested the slain Bishop's assistant and co-occupant of the parish house, Father Mario Orantes, in March 2000 and charged him with the murder for the second time. The former parish house cook, Margarita Lopez, was rearrested in January 2000 and was charged as an accessory to the crime. Orantes and Lopez are scheduled to stand trial in the latter half of 2000. Three other suspects, former Presidential Military Staff (EMP) specialist Obdulio Villanueva; active duty EMP captain Byron Lima Oliva; and Lima's father, retired Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, were arrested in January 2000 for Bishop Gerardi's murder and also are awaiting trial in the latter half of 2000. The Government's investigation appears to have established a political motive for the killing, but details are unavailable as prosecutors prepare their trial strategy. There is no evidence that suggests that the murder was motivated by the Bishop's religious faith or practice.

The ecumenical movement is weak, although there are occasional interfaith meetings.

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. U.S. Embassy officials at various levels, including the Ambassador, have met on many occasions with leaders of the Catholic Church, and of Church-sponsored institutions. The Embassy also maintains an active dialog with the Catholic Church hierarchy and affiliated organizations.

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