International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for 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. Government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion; however, the Government has not implemented provisions of the Peace Accords regarding the rights of indigenous people that protect the exercise of indigenous religious beliefs and practices.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

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. Religious Demography

The country has land area of 41,699 square miles and the population is slightly over 11 million. While no definitive census data are available, the country's indigenous population is estimated at 55 to 60 percent of the total population.

Historically, the country 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 between 50 and 60 percent of the population is Catholic and approximately 40 percent is Protestant, primarily evangelical. Leaders of Maya spiritual organizations maintain that 40 to 50 percent of the population practices some form of indigenous spiritual ritual, but that only about 10 percent do so openly. Other religious groups are represented, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, small communities of Jews, Muslims, and followers of Indian spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba. 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, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, which are represented worldwide.

Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of syncretistic practices than the Catholic Church, whose current policy is to accept any pre-Columbian or traditional practices that are not in direct conflict with Catholic dogma. Some observers maintain that a majority of the indigenous members of evangelical churches secretly practice traditional Maya rituals.

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 winter 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 evangelical Protestant Church of the Word.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government has not implemented the 1995 Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which provides for the respect of spiritual rights of indigenous people. The Agreement calls for Congress to pass legislation to amend the Constitution in order to "recognize, respect, and protect the distinct forms of spirituality practiced by the Maya, Garifuna, and Xinca" groups. While the previous Congress passed a law containing 50 proposed constitutional amendments, including this one, the package was defeated in a popular referendum in May 1999, and no further efforts have been made to amend the Constitution. 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 nonreligious 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.

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.

The Government does not have any organized programs to promote interfaith understanding or dialog. Nonetheless, the Government has sought the support of diverse religious groups for passage of legal statutes on the rights of children and with implementation of health and literacy programs for children. For a number of churches, such public service projects are the only forum for interaction with adherents of other faiths.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

While there is no government policy of discrimination, a lack of resources and political will to enforce existing laws and to implement the Peace Accords limits the free expression of indigenous religious practice. Indigenous leaders note that Maya culture does not receive the official recognition that it is due. The Government has not provided mechanisms for free access to ceremonial sites considered sacred within indigenous culture, nor has the Government provided for the preservation or protection of such ceremonial sites as archaeological preserves. The Government's use of sacred sites as revenue-generating tourist destinations is considered by some indigenous groups to be an affront to their spiritual rights.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

On June 8, a court convicted three military officers, former Presidential Military Staff (EMP) specialist Obdulio Villanueva; active-duty EMP Captain Byron Lima Oliva; and Lima Oliva's father, retired Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, of the April 26, 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Coordinator of the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights. The court sentenced them to 30-year, noncommutable sentences. Because the murder occurred just 2 days after Bishop Gerardi delivered the final report of the Office's "Recovery of Historical Memory" project, which detailed many of the human rights abuses committed during the internal conflict and held the military, military commissioners, and civil self-defense patrol forces responsible for more than 90 percent of war-related human rights violations, some observers had suspected a political motive for the crime. There was no evidence that suggests the murder was motivated by the Bishop's religious faith or practice. The court also found the bishop's assistant, Father Mario Orantes, guilty and sentenced him to 20 years' imprisonment.

Prosecutors appear to have dropped the case of Mayan priest Raul Coc Choc who was shot and killed 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.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees. However, there were credible reports that agents of Military Intelligence continue to monitor the activities of religious leaders well after the end of the armed conflict.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including 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 III. 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 against religious minorities. However, widespread intolerance of the free practice of traditional indigenous religious rituals was reported.

Although indigenous Guatemalans outnumber the westernized "Ladino" community, they historically have been dominated by the Ladinos and generally excluded from the mainstream of social, economic, and political activity. The Ladino community long has regarded indigenous people with disdain. Reports of discrimination against indigenous religious practices must be viewed in the context of this widespread Ladino rejection of indigenous culture.

Within the Jewish community, there were virtually no encounters with anti-Semitism. However, a leader of the Jewish community reported that Jews do not feel that they are seen to be fully Guatemalan by their compatriots of other faiths.

Maya religious leaders note widespread discrimination by evangelical Protestants, and to a lesser extent, by Catholics. For example, despite the large number of indigenous members of evangelical congregations, traditional religious practice often is described as "witchcraft" or "devil worship". Indigenous evangelicals regularly are threatened with expulsion from the church if they should become involved with traditional religious practices.

There is a split among evangelical Protestant churches between a majority group, which strongly opposes ecumenical engagement with other churches or religious traditions, and a minority group, which actively promotes an ecumenical and multicultural vision. Within the former organization, groups that engage with practitioners of other faiths are asked to renounce their status as evangelical churches within the organization and are given the status of public service agencies instead.

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. U.S. Embassy officials at various levels, including the Ambassador, have met on many occasions with leaders of major religious institutions within the country as well as religious-based nongovernmental organizations. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is working closely with Maya spiritual leaders in conducting community mental health projects linked to the exhumations of mass graves created during the internal conflict, which are only now being unearthed. USAID also supports bilingual education for indigenous children which is based on the Maya worldview, including core spiritual values. The Public Affairs Section of the Embassy has promoted dialog between leaders of Maya and Ladino groups within civil society and within diverse religious communities. The Public Affairs Section also has sponsored ecumenical events focused on the role of religion in the construction of peace.