International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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 a total area of 41,699 square miles, and its population is approximately 12 million. While no definitive census data are available, the U.N. estimates that the country's indigenous population is 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 are Catholic and approximately 40 percent are Protestant, primarily evangelical. Leaders of Maya spiritual organizations maintain that 40 to 50 percent of the population practice 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, and 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 1999 elections. Former de facto President and retired General Efrain Rios Montt heads the FRG and serves as President of Congress; he is 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 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 1999 popular referendum, and no further efforts have been made to amend the Constitution. In May the U.N. Verification Mission noted in its presentation to the international donor community at the Consultative Group that the accord continued to face serious barriers to its implementation. 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 religious recognition, nor does it impose registration restrictions for religious members to worship together. However, the Government does require religious congregations as well as other nonreligious associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register as legal entities 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 an intention to 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 during the period covered by this report.

Foreign missionaries are required to obtain a missionary visa, which is issued for a period of up to one 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, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. 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 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. However, in October 2001, the Government swore in the Commission for the Definition of Sacred Places to address such issues. The Commission has not taken action to protect any specific sacred sites since its inception.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

An appeal remains pending in the Constitutional Court regarding the June 2001 conviction of three military officers and an assistant priest for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Coordinator of the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights (ODHA). In October 2002, an appeals court annulled the 2001 conviction and ordered a retrial, which the ODHA immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. In February, the Supreme Court Appellate Chamber confirmed the June 2001 trial, a decision that the defense then appealed to the Constitutional Court.

There were multiple reports of assassinations of religious leaders of various denominations over the last year; however, evidence has not surfaced during the reporting period in any of the cases to suggest that the murders were related to the individuals' religious practices. In April human rights activist and Mayan priest Diego Xon Salazar was murdered in Chichicastenango, Quiche province. Xon Salazar had reportedly received multiple death threats related to his work denouncing the resurgence of the civilian defense patrols (ex-PACS) in the Quiche. The investigation of his murder was pending at the end of the reporting period. In May Mayan priest Gerardo Camo Manuel was murdered during a religious ceremony in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz province, after reportedly receiving death threats from one or more members of his community. The investigation was on-going at the end of the period covered by this report.

Also in May evangelical pastor Oscar Armando Montiel Montalvan was murdered during an evening service in his parish in San Juan Sacatepequez, Sacatepequez province. While the police continued to investigate the crime, none of his congregation had testified to the identity of the assailants, leading the police to speculate that witnesses fear retribution. Catholic priest Edgar Estuardo del Cid was kidnaped, detained, and threatened for several hours along with three parishioners in Guanagazapa, Escuintla province. In the report filed with the Public Ministry, the victims attributed the crime to del Cid's criticism of social injustice during his homilies.

In October 2002, Mayan spiritual leader Antonio Pop Caal was kidnapped and murdered in Coban, Alta Verapaz province. His alleged murderers were being held in custody and a trial was pending at the end of the reporting period. In December 2002, Mayan priest Marcos Sical Perez was killed by unknown assailants in Salama, Baja Verapaz province. An investigation was pending at the end of the reporting period.

While these crimes have not been linked to religious persecution, they represent a disturbing trend of targeting voices of religious leaders who dissent against the corruption and impunity that plague society.

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.

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 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. However, widespread intolerance of the free practice of traditional indigenous religious rituals was reported. A 2002 study by the Ecumenical Forum for Peace and Reconciliation found that in isolated lynching cases, evangelical pastors have encouraged such activities against those who practice traditional beliefs.

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 disagreements with evangelical Protestants, and to a lesser extent, Catholics. Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of indigenous practices than the Catholic Church, whose practice in many areas of the country is to accept pre-Columbian or traditional practices that are not in conflict with Catholic dogma. While a large number of members of evangelical congregations are indigenous, local evangelical leaders often describe traditional religious practices as "witchcraft" or "devil worship," and actively discourage their indigenous members from becoming involved with traditional religious practices.

Evangelical Protestant churches are split 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 weak. However, in April 2002, the Ecumenical Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, a coalition primarily made up of Catholic and evangelical churches originally formed to assist in the negotiation of the Peace Accords, announced its intent to begin monitoring government efforts to fulfill the Accords, particularly on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Ecumenical Forum sponsored public conferences and debates on this topic throughout the country. The Ecumenical Forum's leadership council continues to meet on a monthly basis, maintaining dialog between most religious groups operating in the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government 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, met on many occasions with leaders of major religious institutions within the country as well as religious-based NGOs. 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. USAID also supports bilingual education based on the Maya worldview, including core spiritual values for indigenous children. 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.