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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 Constitution also states that no one "shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare their ideology or beliefs."

The Roman Catholic Church is not an official state religion; however, it enjoys a close relationship with the secular Government. For example, in 1998 in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, the Government asked the Church to act as a distribution arm for relief goods because of the Church's reach and its reputation for honesty. The Church is the most politically active religious denomination and has significant political influence. Catholic Church leaders routinely meet with senior government officials. The historical position of the Church is such that most religiously affiliated monuments and memorials are Catholic-related. However, the predominance of the Catholic Church does not impact negatively on the religious freedom of others.

The Government's requirements for legal recognition of a church are similar to its requirements for other nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). A church must apply for "Personeria Juridica" (legal standing), which must be approved by the National Assembly. Following assembly approval, a church must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or a foundation.

A recognized church can be granted tax-exempt status, known as exoneration. Exoneration is a contentious issue, in particular with regard to exemption from customs duties on imported goods donated for humanitarian purposes. Goods donated to established churches and other nonprofit religious organizations recognized by the Government, and that are intended for the exclusive use of the church or organization, are eligible for exoneration from duties. Prior to 1997, the Government provided exonerated churches with a letter confirming their tax-exempt status. A church could obtain customs clearance for imported donated goods by presenting its exemption letter. However, in 1997 the Government implemented a new customs regime that required clearance from the Office of External Cooperation, the Ministry of Finance, the Customs Office, and the municipality in which the donated goods would be used before a tax exemption could be approved and the goods released.

A number of churches and other nonprofit religious organizations, including the Lutheran Church, the Moravian Church, and the Council of Evangelical Churches, reported bureaucratic delays in obtaining exoneration from customs duties for humanitarian aid in the form of donated goods. Some non-Catholic churches complained that the Catholic Church was receiving favored treatment in this regard and in practice did not face the same bureaucratic requirements applied to other religious and humanitarian organizations. However, some Catholic groups, including Catholic Relief Services, reported similar bureaucratic problems in obtaining exoneration from duties on donated goods. The Government published additional, more specific guidelines in April and June 1999 in an attempt to address these problems, but the issue remained controversial.

Over 90 percent of the population belong to one of the Christian denominations. According to the most recent census, conducted in 1995, 72.9 percent of the population were members of the Roman Catholic Church, 15.1 percent were members of evangelical churches, 1.5 percent were members of the Moravian Church, and 0.1 percent were members of the Episcopal Church. An additional 1.9 percent were associated with other churches or religious groups, and 8.5 percent professed no religious affiliation or were atheistic. Some more recent church figures differ from the official census information; for example, the Episcopal Church claims a membership of nearly twice the census figure, and the evangelical churches also have made credible claims of higher current membership.

The total number of citizens who practice a religion other than Christianity is extremely small. There are small communities of non-Christians, including a small Jewish community that gathers for religious holidays and Friday evening dinners but does not have an ordained rabbi or a synagogue. In 1979 many of the country's approximately 250 Jews fled abroad in the face of persecution and imprisonment by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The FSLN bombed and partially destroyed the country's only synagogue, then confiscated the property shortly afterward and converted it into a youth training camp. There is now a funeral home on the site. Some Jews have returned since the Sandinista Government was ousted democratically in 1990, but the total Jewish population of the country consists of fewer than 50 persons.

There is a small number of Muslims as well--primarily foreigners, or naturalized Nicaraguans from Iran, Libya, and Palestine who immigrated to Nicaragua in the 1980's--but there is no mosque.

Minority religions also include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church), Amish and Mennonite communities, the Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Scientology. Although these religions are perceived as foreign, the Government neither monitors them nor alerts the public to their presence.

Other immigrant groups include the "Turcos"--Palestinian Christians whose ancestors came to Central America in the early 1900s, and the Chinese, who came to the country in large numbers shortly after World War II but many of whom fled at the time of the 1979 revolution. Chinese-Nicaraguans either arrived as Christians or converted to Christianity, and intermarried frequently with native Nicaraguans.

There are no longer any pre-Colombian religions in the country, although there is a "freedom movement" within some Moravian churches to allow indigenous Amerindian spiritual expression, often through music. The Catholic Church is the most syncretistic of the denominations and does not criticize or interfere with non-Christian aspects of religious festivals held in its name. For example, each August up to 30,000 Nicaraguans--many of them painted red or coated in motor oil--gather to carry "Dominguito," a sacred 10-inch statue of Saint Dominic, from his home church in a suburb of Managua to another church downtown. A week later the revelers reconvene to carry the statue back. Such events have historical roots that go back to pre-Colombian times.

Geographically, Moravian and Episcopal communities are concentrated on the Atlantic coast, whereas Catholicism and evangelical churches dominate the Pacific and central regions. There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: blacks and Amerindians, generally from the Atlantic coast, are more likely to belong to the Moravian or Episcopal Church. Some evangelical churches have focused on the booming, remote towns of the central South Atlantic Region and have a strong presence there.

The evangelical churches are growing rapidly, especially in poor and/or remote areas. For example, in 1980 the Assemblies of God had 80 churches and fewer than 5,000 members. Today, according to church leader Saturnino Cerato, they have 700 churches and 70,200 baptized members.

Anecdotal evidence points to proportionally higher church attendance among members of the new evangelical churches than among members of the Catholic and traditional Protestant churches. In the poorer neighborhoods, the small evangelical churches are filled to capacity nearly every evening. According to a Catholic Church official, the Catholic Church is growing numerically but losing ground proportionally.

Foreign missionaries operate in the country. The Mormons have 178 missionaries, the Unification Church has six families of missionaries, and nearly all of the non-Catholic denominations have at least one missionary family in the country. Missionaries do not face any special requirements other than the appropriate visa--the "religious worker" visa--which is given freely to all those who follow application guidelines. The process of obtaining a religious worker visa takes several months and must be completed before the missionary arrives in the country. During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of difficulties by missionaries in obtaining the proper visa.

Private religious schools operate in the country. The Government provides financial support to a number of primary and secondary schools owned and directed by the Catholic Church by paying the salaries of teachers at these schools.

The Government does not take steps to promote interfaith understanding, nor does it sponsor interfaith dialog.

In 1998 the National Assembly approved a land swap as compensation to Jehovah's Witnesses for property previously confiscated by the Sandinista government.

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.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations among religions are very different on the two coasts. On the Atlantic side, where the three dominant churches are the Moravian, Episcopal and Catholic Churches, there is an ecumenical spirit. The churches are even known to celebrate the Eucharist together. However, on the Pacific side, ecumenicism is rare. Instead there is continuing and energetic competition for adherents between the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches.

Both the Catholic bishops and the leading evangelical leaders made public statements during the period covered by this report indicating a desire to work together more closely, but they generally have not done so in practice.

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, and also maintains a regular dialog with the principal religious leaders and organizations. In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which struck in October 1998, the Embassy contacted appropriate government officials to expedite customs clearance for U.S. humanitarian aid in the form of goods donated to religious and other nonprofit charitable organizations. In 1998 the Embassy interceded with the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs to urge support for prompt action by the National Assembly to approve a land swap to compensate Jehovah's Witnesses for property previously confiscated by the Sandinista government.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999