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 the right to practice the religion of one's choice, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. However, local officials sometimes infringed on this right.

In November 1998, the Government and representatives of many religious denominations signed a Religious Code of Conduct that reaffirms freedom of religion.

Religious groups are required to register as religious associations with the Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Secretariat of Government. The registration process is relatively routine. A total of 5,263 religious associations were registered between 1992 and December 1998. The Government contends that it rejects few applications, usually because of incomplete documentation, and no religious group has reported any difficulty in gaining government registration. There were no reports that the Government had rejected applications.

Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion; 89 percent of the population are at least nominal believers. Of this group, 29 percent participate actively in church services. According to various sources, Protestants of various denominations account for approximately 3.7 percent of the population; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) approximately 1 percent; Seventh-Day Adventists, 0.81 percent; Jehovah's Witnesses, 0.51 percent; Judaism, 0.3 percent; Orthodox Christianity, 0.05 percent; non-Christian groups, 2 percent; and 3 percent of the population does not identify with any organized religion. There is no estimate of the number of atheists or of those who do not practice any religion. The "traditional" religion practiced largely among indigenous people in some areas of the states of Chiapas and Yucatan mixes Catholic and pre-Hispanic Mayan religious beliefs.

A government permit is required to construct or convert existing buildings into new churches; 7,139 such permits were granted between 1992 and August 1998. Religious groups report no difficulty in obtaining Government permission for these activities.

Several churches reported initial difficulty establishing themselves in rural areas, due to resistance from local authorities. However, all reported that initial resistance was overcome, sometimes with assistance from state authorities, and that they now are operating freely. For example, the Apostolic Church of the Faith in Christ reported some initial local resistance to its establishment of a church in Carichic, a village in the southern sierra of Chihuahua. The church reported that the state governor sent orders to allow them to establish, and it has reported no further problems. The Greek Orthodox Church (Parroquia Ortodoxa Griega de Dios Padre) reported that the state judicial police initially resisted its efforts to establish in the southern sierra, due to fear of negative community reaction. The church eventually was established and currently is experiencing no discrimination.

The law also requires permission from the Federal Government to hold religious meetings outside of a place of worship. The Government granted 4,884 such permits between January and August 1998. There were no reports of any rejections.

The current status of religious freedom reflects the historic tensions between the Catholic Church and the modern State. For most of the country's nearly 300 years as a Spanish colony, the Catholic Church involved itself heavily in politics. In the early national period, the Church's vast wealth and political influence spurred a powerful anti-clerical movement, which found political expression in the Liberal party. The Catholic Church supported rebel Conservatives in the mid-19th century and later welcomed the country's occupation by a French army. Turn-of-the-century collaboration with Porfirio Diaz earned the Church the enmity of the victors in the Mexican Revolution. Consequently, severe restrictions on the Church were written into the country's present Constitution. The Federal Government's attempt to enforce those restrictions in the 1920's led to violent repression and an open revolt by Catholic peasants in the Cristero Rebellion (1926-29). Tensions between the Church and the State eased after 1940, but constitutional restrictions were maintained even as enforcement became progressively lax over the ensuing decades. The Government established diplomatic relations with the Holy See during the administration of President Carlos Salinas, and the Government lifted almost all restrictions on the Catholic Church in 1992. That year the Government ratified its informal policy of not enforcing most legal controls on religious groups by, among other things, granting religious groups legal status, conceding them limited property rights, and lifting restrictions on the number of priests in the country. However, the law continues to mandate a strict separation of church and state and bars the clergy from holding public office, advocating partisan political views, supporting political candidates, or opposing the laws or institutions of the State. The Church's ability to own and operate mass media is also limited.

Relations with the Catholic Church have improved in recent years, despite some lingering tensions. Then-Secretary of Government Francisco Labastida hosted a dinner for officials of the Catholic Church during an international convention of cardinals, bishops, and priests held in Mexico City in July 1998. Pope John Paul II visited Mexico between January 22 and 26, 1999, and millions of citizens attended various events. President Ernesto Zedillo welcomed the Pope upon his arrival, and the Mayor of Mexico City presented him with honorary keys to the city. Previous constitutional prohibitions had precluded this honor during earlier Papal visits. In March 1999, President Zedillo attended the inauguration of a new Roman Catholic cathedral in Ecatepec.

All church structures that existed in 1992 were declared legally "national patrimony" and are owned by the State. Religious structures constructed after 1992 with government permits are the property of the respective churches. The Catholic Church and the Government have cooperated to restore the colonial-era Mexico City cathedral.

Foreign religious workers must secure government permission to visit the country for religious purposes. Although the Government limits the number of visas granted to each religious group, it has issued 4,764 visas since 1992. Some religious groups allege that it is government policy to keep foreign religious practitioners out of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Relations were difficult between the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, and the Government. The situation there is a complex mix of economic, ethnic, and religious tensions. The San Cristobal Diocese has complained that its foreign clergy are unable to get their visa status extended or rectified (many enter on tourist visas). In February 1998, the Government expelled French Catholic priest Michel Chanteau, who had been the parish priest of Chenalho, Chiapas, for 32 years, on immigration grounds. Chanteau had blamed the Government publicly for the December 1997 Acteal massacre. In 1995 the Government expelled Father Loren Riebe and two other foreign priests from Chiapas. In March 1999, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the three priests' rights to religious freedom had been violated and recommended that the expulsion order be reversed. The Commission also recommended that the officials involved in the case be investigated and sanctioned. As of June 30, 1999, the Government has not responded to the Commission. On December 1, 1998, the authorities withdrew an expulsion order for five foreign clergymen who had strayed near rebel territory.

The Government blamed Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of the San Cristobal Diocese, for exacerbating its problems with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the international human rights community. In June 1998, Bishop Ruiz resigned as head of the National Mediation Commission for Chiapas (CONAI), and the Commission was dissolved. In January 1999, in a press report, the Diocese of San Cristobal and the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center for Human Rights accused the army of conducting "low intensity warfare" in Chiapas and permitting progovernment armed civilian groups to operate with impunity. The investigation into the November 1997 attack on a pickup truck carrying supporters of Bishop Ruiz remains unresolved. In 1998 the alleged perpetrator of the November 1997 attack on the Bishop's sister was found to be mentally ill. There were no reports that either attack occurred because of Bishop Ruiz's religious beliefs.

Religious instruction is prohibited in public schools, but religious associations are free to maintain their own private schools. These schools do not receive any funding from the Government. The Catholic Church maintains its own schools, but asserts that there are restrictions on its running of schools and the raising and spending of funds.

There is a long history of religious intolerance and expulsions in certain indigenous communities whose residents follow traditional religious practices, and where religious diversity is viewed as a threat to indigenous culture. The Evangelical Commission in Defense of Human Rights claimed that municipal authorities had expelled 30,000 evangelicals from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, in the last 30 years. In San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, the church, the area's most prominent building, features a mix of Mayan symbols and traditional Catholic motifs. On July 26, 1998, municipal authorities expelled 70 evangelical Christians living in the municipality. State officials helped them to return on August 1, 1998. However, the children of evangelicals have been denied access to the local public schools in six communities there since 1994. In 1998 the mayor of San Juan Chamula declared that evangelicals and Catholics who support them would be unable to register the births of their children. In response, the state government approved a second registration office to handle the evangelicals.

Although religious groups cannot own or administer broadcast radio or television stations, the Catholic Church owns and operates a national cable television channel. Government permission is required to transmit religious programming on broadcast radio or television. The Government granted 2,418 such permits between January and August 1998.

The Federal Office of Religious Affairs actively promotes religious tolerance and investigates approximately 100 cases of religious intolerance each year.

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

There were no reports that persons were detained or imprisoned solely because of their religious beliefs. However, according to press reports, on June 15, 1999, police arrested 13 Protestants who were building a church in Mitziton, Chiapas. The church construction reportedly had angered Mayan Indians in the area, who see Protestantism as a threat to their cultural religious practices, which involve a mixture of Catholicism and traditional Mayan beliefs. Hundreds of persons in Mitizon and the nearby town of Flores Magon met recently to demand that the Protestants leave the area.

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 among the religious communities are generally amicable. In November 1998, the Inter-Faith Council (which includes representatives from most of the major religions) and representatives of the Government signed a Religious Code of Conduct that reaffirms freedom of religion and promotes interfaith tolerance. The Council is completely independent of the Government.

In parts of Oaxaca and Chiapas, traditional leaders and Protestant evangelical groups clash on occasion. While religious differences are often a prominent feature of such incidents, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power were more often the basic cause of problems (see Section I.).

[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