Back to Index

U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

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

The law states that there is no official or state church or religion but adds that the State "is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians' religious sentiment." Some observers have interpreted this to mean that the State unofficially sanctions a privileged position for the Roman Catholic Church. (Roman Catholicism was the country's official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution.) A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to religious characterizations of the country.

The law on freedom of religion provides a mechanism for religions to obtain the status of recognized legal entities. The Government extends two different kinds of recognition to religions: recognition of basic juridical personality, and special public recognition. The Ministry of Interior regularly grants the former type of recognition. The only requirement is submission of a formal request and basic organizational information. Additionally, any foreign religious faith that wishes to establish a presence in the country must document official recognition by authorities from its home country. The Ministry of Interior may reject any requests that do not comply fully with these established requirements or that violate fundamental constitutional rights. Among the religions recognized by the Government are Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, the Mennonite Church, Calvinism, Lutheranism, the Baptist Church, Presbyterianism, the Methodist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Islam, and Judaism.

Special public recognition by the Government is required for any religion that wishes to minister to its adherents via any public institution. For example, such permission is required to minister to soldiers, public hospital patients, and prisoners and to provide religious instruction in public schools. When considering the authorization of such special public recognition, the Government takes into account the number of adherents of the religion, the degree of popular acceptance the religion enjoys within society, and other factors deemed relevant, such as the content of the religion's statutes and required behavioral norms. Negotiations for receipt of this special recognition are conducted by the Episcopal Conference of the Colombian Roman Catholic Church on behalf of the Government. The Episcopal Conference also is authorized to revoke such status. To date, 14 non-Catholic religions have received this special public recognition; all are Christian denominations. A further 40 religious organizations have requested it, and determinations in these cases are pending. Some prominent non-Christian religious groups, such as the Jewish community, have not requested special public recognition.

All legally recognized churches, seminaries, monasteries, and convents are exempt from national and local taxes. Local governments also may exempt from taxes religiously affiliated organizations such as schools and libraries. However, in practice, local governments often exempt only organizations that are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

Due to its special relationship with the State, officially sanctioned in a concordat, the Roman Catholic Church was the only religion that was permitted to minister and teach via public institutions between 1887 and 1991. Although the Catholic Church was separated from the State by the 1991 Constitution, it retains a de facto privileged status.

Although no official data are available, one 1996 study from Los Andes University concluded that 88 percent of citizens are Roman Catholics (although a large percentage do not practice their faith actively), between 6 and 7 percent belong to other Christian denominations, and the remainder belong to other religious faiths/movements (e.g., Jews, Muslims, animists, adherents of various syncretistic beliefs, agnostics, and atheists). Adherents of some religions are concentrated in specific geographic regions. For example, the vast majority of practitioners of a syncretistic religion that blends Roman Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians of Choco department. Jews are concentrated in the major cities; Muslims are concentrated on the Caribbean coast; and adherents of indigenous animistic religions generally are found in remote, rural areas.

Foreign missionaries require a special visa, which is valid for a maximum of 2 years. The Ministry of Foreign Relations may issue visas to foreign missionaries or members of a foreign religion or denomination, provided that the religion or denomination has received special public recognition. Applicants are required to have a certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior confirming that the religious institution is registered with the Ministry, a certificate issued by the religious institution confirming the applicant's membership in that institution and explaining the purpose of the proposed travel, and proof of economic solvency.

The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided that it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands. There are no other restrictions on missionaries' activities.

The Roman Catholic Church had a monopoly on parochial education until the current Constitution was adopted in 1991. The Constitution provides parents with the right to choose the type of education their children receive, including Roman Catholic or other religious education. It also states that no one shall be obliged to receive religious education of any type in public schools. Previously, Roman Catholic religious instruction was mandatory in public schools. The Roman Catholic Church and non-Catholic religions and Christian denominations with special public recognition may provide religious instruction in public schools. (No non-Christian religion currently has received public recognition.) Religions without this special recognition may establish private parochial schools, provided they comply with Education Ministry requirements. For example, the Jewish community operates its own schools.

The Catholic Church has a unique agreement with the Government to provide schools to rural areas that have no state-run schools. These schools are also tax exempt.

Both the Constitutional Court (on October 7, 1998) and the Council of State (on November 19, 1998) found that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonite seminarians had been forced regularly into military service, in violation of constitutional and other provisions for conscientious objectors. Both the Court and the Council ordered the Government to exempt the two Churches' seminarians in the same manner that it exempted Roman Catholic seminarians. Since the Court and Council's rulings, neither Church has experienced further problems of this sort.

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 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.

Religious groups have come under attack from both paramilitary and guerilla groups during the country's ongoing civil conflict, although these attacks often are linked to political concerns rather than to the religious affiliations of their victims.

On September 11, 1998, Catholic priest Alcides Jimenez Chicangana was shot 18 times as he gave a sermon in a Catholic church in Popayan, Putumayo department, hours after he led a public rally for peace. On September 22, investigators detained alleged narcotics trafficker Luis Angel Canas for the crime; the case remains pending. A commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is under preliminary investigation.

On May 30, 1999, members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnaped over 140 persons, including at least 3 American citizens and a Catholic priest, who were attending Mass at the La Maria Catholic church in Cali. The kidnapers ordered the parishioners to leave the church because of an alleged bomb threat, then put them onto trucks and drove them away. Some of the victims, including some children and elderly persons, were released shortly thereafter. (The ELN reportedly released 20 of the children into a minefield; the army rescued them with no casualties.) The attack apparently represented an attempt by the ELN to raise its political profile; there was no indication that the victims were targeted specifically because of their religious beliefs.

The Government established road checkpoints to seal off the area in which the victims were believed to have been held, imposed a curfew on the area, and restricted overflights. The Government negotiated the release of 33 victims on June 15, and the ELN released 8 more victims on June 18. Between 20 and 35 hostages still were being held as of the end of June 1999. The ELN has sought a ransom for those persons it continues to hold.

On August 3-5, 1998, FARC guerrillas attacked a counternarcotics base shared by the army and the National Police at Miraflores, Guaviare department. They kidnaped several humanitarian workers, including a priest.

The FARC has placed religious restrictions on persons within the "despeje," the demilitarized zone established in November 1998 in order to facilitate a Government-FARC dialog leading to formal peace talks. In April 1999, the FARC attempted to expel Catholic priest Miguel Angel Serna, who had criticized publicly the FARC's management of the zone. The FARC allowed him to remain following strong public criticism and intervention by both the National Bishops' Conference and the presidency. However, under FARC pressure, on April 30, 1999, the Church removed priest Rufino Perez from the despeje. Perez had criticized the FARC publicly.

Despite increased pressure by the Government on the FARC to account for three American missionaries from the New Tribes Mission, who were kidnaped by FARC guerrillas in January 1993, their whereabouts and condition remained unknown.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between various faiths are generally amicable.

Some indigenous groups with distinct animistic or syncretistic religious beliefs are targeted regularly for attack by guerrilla or paramilitary groups. However, these attacks generally are motivated by political differences (whether real or perceived) or by questions of land ownership, rather than by religious differences.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains regular contact with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and other religions, and discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

[End of Document]

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]

Revised last: 10-09-1999