International Religious Freedom Report 2004
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, and 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. However, traditional Mayan leaders report discrimination from some nongovernmental sources.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 42,043 square miles, and its population is approximately 12 million. Official census data indicates that the country's indigenous population is 42 percent, although unofficial estimates are higher.

Historically, the country was overwhelmingly Catholic. However, in recent decades, 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 Mayan spiritual organizations maintain that many indigenous Catholics and some Protestants also practice some form of indigenous spiritual ritual. Other religious groups are represented, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, and, primarily in the capital, small communities of Jews and Muslims. Although many persons nominally affiliated with Catholicism or a Protestant denomination do not practice their religion actively, 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 among Catholics.

The largest Protestant denomination is the Full Gospel Church, followed by the Assembly of God, the Central American Church, and the Prince of Peace Church. Other Protestant denominations include Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian, as well as many independent evangelical denominations. U.S. and Latin American Christian missionaries work both in religious and social capacities, although there are no reliable statistics on their numbers.

Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of syncretistic practices than the Catholic Church, which, although it formally does not accept the practice of Mayan religions, has generally tolerated traditional practices that do not directly conflict with Catholic dogma. Observers maintain that some indigenous members of evangelical churches also secretly practice traditional Mayan 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, which was the governing party from 2000 to 2004.

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 within Congress to amend the Constitution.

There is no state religion; however, the Constitution recognizes explicitly the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church.

The Government does not establish requirements for religious recognition, nor does it impose registration requirements for religious members to worship together. However, the Government requires religious congregations as well as nonreligious associations and nongovernmental organizations to register as legal entities if they wish to transact business. Such legal recognition is necessary, among other things, for a congregation to rent or purchase premises, enter into contracts, and enjoy tax-exempt status. The Government does not charge religious groups a registration fee. Although registered religious entities are legally exempt from taxes, Protestant leaders noted that their churches sometimes were required to pay property taxes by local officials.

The Catholic Church does not have to register as a legal entity; it is so recognized in the Constitution. For non-Catholic congregations, the process for establishing legal status is determined by the Ministry of Government; 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. The congregation must have at least 25 initial members, and the bylaws must reflect an intention to pursue religious or spiritual objectives. Applications are rejected only if the organization does not appear to be devoted to a religious objective, 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. However, Protestant leaders report that their churches have found the process lengthy (lasting from 6 months to several years) and they estimate that, due to these difficulties, 8,000 Protestant churches in the country have not yet applied for or completed the process.

According to the Guatemalan Migration (Ministry of Immigration), foreign missionaries are required to obtain a tourist visa, which is issued for a period of 3 months and is renewable. After renewing their tourist visa once, they may apply for temporary residence. Specific missionary visas are no longer issued or required.

The Government does not subsidize religious groups, and no groups report receiving nationalfunding. 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. In the last year, the Ministry of Education has consulted with Protestant groups on the integration of general values, although not specific religious teachings, into school curriculum.

The Government does not have any organized programs to promote interfaith understanding or dialogue. Nonetheless, the Government has sought the support of diverse religious groups for passage of legal statutes on the rights of children and for implementation of health and literacy programs for children. For a number of churches, social projects are the primary 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 state that Mayan culture does not receive the official recognition that it is due. The Government has not provided mechanisms for indigenous control of or free access to ceremonial sites considered sacred within indigenous culture. Individuals seeking to practice traditional religious ceremonies at sites considered sacred must pay an entrance fee or request permission far in advance from the Historical Anthropological Institute (a division of the Ministry of Culture). 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. In October 2001, the Government swore in the Commission for the Definition of Sacred Places to address such issues. However, the Commission has not taken action to open, or restrict, any sacred sites to religious use since its establishment. Often, individuals who wish to hold religious ceremonies in sacred sites must pay an entrance fee or request permission from the Ministry of Culture many weeks or months in advance.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Widespread impunity in the justice sector restricts the investigation of crimes that could have had religious motivations. There were multiple reports of killings of religious leaders of various denominations during the period covered by this report; however, there is no evidence to suggest that the killings were related to the individuals' religious affiliation or practices.

An appeal remains pending in the Constitutional Court of 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 2001 conviction, a decision that the defense then appealed to the Constitutional Court. The prosecution is currently awaiting decision on an appeal filed with the Third Appeals Court in January, requesting that the Fourth Penal Court be recused from hearing the case.

In April 2003, 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. During the investigation conducted by the Special Prosecutor's Office for Human Rights, prosecutors theorized that Xon Salazar was killed because of an interfamilial land dispute. Prosecution was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

In May 2003, Mayan priest Gerardo Camo Manuel was killed during a religious ceremony in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz Province, after reportedly receiving death threats from one or more members of his community. The only witness in the case was unable to identify a suspect, and the case currently is closed.

In December 2003, a controversial Catholic priest well known for his financial support of the poor, Jos� Mar�a Ruiz Furl�n was killed in Guatemala City. Prosecutors discounted religious motives and were investigating Furl�n's business ties at the end of the period covered by this report.

In October 2002, Mayan spiritual leader Antonio Pop Caal was kidnapped and killed in Coban, Alta Verapaz Province. Seven individuals were arrested after trying to ransom Pop Caal for profit. The case is scheduled to go to trial in February 2005.

In December 2002, Mayan priest Marcos Sical Perez was killed by assailants in Salama, Baja Verapaz Province, allegedly in relation to an attempted car theft. The suspects' trial continued at the end of the reporting period.

In March Reverend Ron Retner, an American Lutheran missionary, was threatened in a neighborhood of Guatemala City after trying to enter the community to preach. The threats allegedly were related to a dispute between the Lutheran Church and community members over land owned by the Church.

Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini and Catholic priest Bernando Castro reportedly received death threats during the period covered by this report due to their activism in support of indigenous land rights.

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, and reflect poorly on the ability of the justice sector to swiftly investigate and prosecute violent crime.

There were no reports of state agents monitoring the activities of religious leaders.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the various religious communities are generally amicable, with the exception of widespread intolerance of Mayan "spirituality" and the practice of indigenous religious rituals. According to leaders of the Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities, complaints from their followers of discrimination based on religion are rare.

The indigenous people historically have been dominated by the Ladinos (citizens of European descent), and generally have been excluded from the mainstream of social, economic, and political activity. Much of the Ladino community has long regarded indigenous people with disdain. Reports of discrimination against traditional religious practices must be viewed in the context of this widespread Ladino rejection of indigenous culture.

Mayan religious leaders note widespread disagreements with evangelical Protestants, and to a lesser extent, charismatic Catholics. Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of indigenous practices than the Catholic Church, whose approach in many areas of the country is to tolerate traditional practice not directly in conflict with Catholic dogma. Many Catholic churches are built on sacred Mayan sites. Mayan leaders report that, in a few areas of the country, Catholic priests have forbidden followers of Mayan spirituality access to these sites.

While many members of evangelical congregations are indigenous, local evangelical leaders often denounce traditional religious practices as "witchcraft" or "devil worship," and actively discourage their indigenous members from being involved with traditional religious practices.

Evangelical Protestant churches are split between a majority group, which strongly opposes ecumenical engagement with other religious traditions, especially Mayan religious practices, and a minority group, which actively promotes an ecumenical and multicultural vision.

The ecumenical movement is focused on discussion of social questions, rather than interfaith discourse. For several years, representatives of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and traditional Mayan spirituality have participated in the Inter-religious Dialogue and the Foro Guatemala (the former meets every 2 to 3 months, the latter irregularly), to communicate primarily on social and political issues. In addition the Ecumenical Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, a coalition of the Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Presbyterian faiths, was founded in April 2002 when it announced its intent to begin monitoring government efforts to fulfill the Peace Accords, particularly on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Ecumenical Forum sponsored public conferences and debates on these topics throughout the country. However, Protestant denominations who are not members strongly opposed it.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, met on many occasions with leaders of major religious institutions as well as religious-based NGOs. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supports bilingual education based on the Mayan worldview, including core spiritual values for indigenous children. USAID also supports the Commission against Discrimination and Racism, which fights discrimination against Mayan religious practitioners. The Embassy has promoted dialogue between leaders of Mayan and Ladino groups within civil society and within diverse religious communities, and has also sponsored ecumenical events focused on the role of religion in the construction of peace.