International Religious Freedom Report 2007
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.

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 49,998 square miles and a population of 5.5 million. More than 80 percent of the population belongs to Christian groups. According to a 2005 census conducted by the governmental Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), 58.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 21.6 percent is evangelical Protestant. Two percent is associated with other unspecified religious groups, 1.6 percent belongs to the Moravian Church, less than 1 percent is associated with the Jehovah's Witnesses, and 15.7 percent profess no religious affiliation or are atheists. The evangelicals include Assembly of God, Pentecostal, Mennonite, Baptist, and other small denominations. A June 2007 poll shows a similar breakdown.

Both Catholic and evangelical leaders regarded the census results as biased. Survey methodology was questioned as well as the counting of those who converted from Catholicism to an evangelical denomination but later returned to Catholicism. In addition some religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), were sometimes incorrectly categorized as "evangelical." According to the Nicaraguan Institute of Evangelicals, their numbers are actually lower than the surveys suggested, between 15 and 18 percent of the population, a result of the methodological problems.

Non-Christian communities are few and small. The Jewish community counts fewer than 50 persons (including expatriates). They gather for religious holidays and Sabbath dinners but do not have an ordained rabbi or a synagogue. According to community members, the last synagogue was firebombed by a Sandinista street mob in 1978.

There are approximately 1,200 to 1,500 Muslims, mostly Sunnis who are resident aliens or naturalized citizens from Palestine, Libya, and Iran. Muslims worship freely. The Islamic Cultural Center in Managua serves as the primary prayer center for Muslims in the city, with approximately 320 men attending on a regular basis. Muslims from Granada, Masaya, Leon, and Chinandega also travel to the Managua prayer center on Fridays for prayers. Granada, Masaya, and Leon have smaller prayer centers in the homes of prominent local Muslims. In May 2007 the Sunni leader of the Managua prayer center was dismissed, due to the increase in Iranian influence in the Muslim community and was to be replaced by a Shi'a religious leader. By the end of the reporting period the Shi'a leader had not been identified. The Muslim community reportedly had plans to build a mosque in Managua.

Minority religious groups include Baha'is and the Church of Scientology. Immigrant groups include Palestinian Christians whose ancestors came to Central America in the early 1900s, and Chinese, many of whom arrived as Christians or intermarried with citizens and converted to Christianity. Some immigrant communities, including South Koreans, formed their own Protestant churches without government interference.

There were no longer any pre-Columbian religions in the country, although there was a "freedom movement" within some Moravian churches to allow indigenous Amerindian spiritual expression, often through music. The Catholic Church frequently incorporated syncretic elements and did not criticize pre-Colombian aspects of Christian religious festivals.

Moravian, Episcopal, and Anglican communities are concentrated on the Atlantic coast, while Catholic and evangelical churches dominate the Pacific and central regions. There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion. Creoles and Amerindians, who generally live along the Atlantic coast, are more likely to belong to the Moravian or Episcopal Churches. Some evangelical churches have a strong presence in the remote towns of the central south Atlantic region. Evangelicals tended to attract poor and unemployed persons with lower levels of education living in mostly rural and remote areas. Their numbers were increasing in rural areas of the interior and areas where the Catholic Church was not present.

The evangelical churches operated three private universities without interference from the Government. The Assemblies of God purported to be the largest evangelical denomination in the country. According to church leaders, there were more than 860 churches and 200,000 baptized members.

Anecdotal evidence suggests higher church attendance rates in evangelical churches than in Catholic and traditional Protestant churches. According to a Catholic official, while the Catholic Church was losing members to the evangelical movement, many converts eventually returned to the Catholic Church.

Missionaries are present.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Government at all levels sought to protect this right in full and did not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Constitution also states that no one "shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare their ideology or beliefs." The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

There is no official state religion; however, due to its historical presence in the country since colonial times, the Catholic Church enjoys a close relationship with the Government. It is the most politically active religious group and wields significant political influence. Catholic Church leaders routinely meet with senior government officials. The Ortega administration, in office since January 2007, appointed retired Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to lead the newly created Council of Peace and Reconciliation, a decision which many criticized as a blurring of church and state. It was not endorsed by the Vatican. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) complained that the Ortega administration is using the church to advance its political agenda. Some evangelical leaders complained that they were denied access to government officials.

The historic context of church-state relations is such that most religiously-associated monuments, memorials, and holidays have a Catholic connection; however, the dominance of the Catholic Church did not have a negative effect on the religious freedom of others.

The following holy days are recognized as national holidays: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception, and Christmas. The Festival of Santo Domingo (August 1 and 10) is also celebrated, but only in Managua.

The Government's requirements for legal recognition of a religious group are similar to requirements for other NGOs. A group must apply for "personer´┐Ża juridica" (legal standing), which the National Assembly must approve. Following approval, the group must register with the Government as an association or foundation. Groups that do not register cannot obtain tax-exempt status (exoneration) and technically do not enjoy standing to incur legal obligations and enter into contracts; however, a number of groups did not register and continued to operate without penalty.

Goods donated to established churches and other registered nonprofit religious organizations that are intended for the exclusive use of the church or organization are eligible for exoneration. Groups must receive 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 may be approved and the goods released. Because of perceived unequal treatment of different religious groups, exoneration remained a contentious issue, particularly regarding exemption from customs duties on imported goods donated for humanitarian purposes and eligibility for tax exemption on the purchase of vehicles.

Some churches and other nonprofit religious organizations, among them the Assemblies of God, continued to report delays in obtaining customs exemptions. A 2003 tax equity law, designed to facilitate the process, required all groups to requalify for exoneration. Many churches and other nonprofit religious organizations reported that the law generally streamlined the process; however, some maintained that the Catholic Church continued to receive preferential treatment and did not have to meet the same requirements as other religious and humanitarian organizations.

Missionaries had to obtain religious worker visas, which were routinely provided; however, the process, which must be completed before the missionary arrives, continued to take several months.

Religion is not taught in public schools, but private religious schools operate and accept students of all religious affiliations. The Government provides financial support to a number of Catholic primary and secondary schools by paying teacher salaries. In March 2007 the National Assembly approved approximately $5,000,000 (NIO 92,500,000) of the national budget to fund nonprofit NGOs and foundations. The largest share, approximately $670,000 (NIO 12,400,000), was earmarked for Catholic University Redemptoris Mater (Unica), the only private religious institution to receive monetary contributions from the Government.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

In September 2006 the National Assembly introduced a controversial new amendment to the Law against Special Crimes against the Environment and Natural Resources, also known as the "noise law," which some organizations claim poses an infringement upon freedom of worship. The law ostensibly prohibits noise pollution near hospitals, clinics, and schools, and noise that exceeds the maximum safe level of decibels established by the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization. The change in the "noise law" led to friction between religious and secular groups. Citizens rights and environmental groups charged that the elevated noise levels caused by some evangelical followers, especially among the Pentecostal movement, disrupted neighborhoods and caused psychological and physical damage.

Some evangelical groups, such as Pentecostals, regarded the law as a restriction on their particular form of worship. Article nine of the law allegedly exempts church groups, asserting that it would not apply to activities of religious organizations as long as such activities were taking place under the roof of the house of worship. Another contentious element of the law concerns the requirement for organizers of large outdoor evangelical events and other proselytizing activities to first obtain a permit from the police or town council. Mauricio Fonseca, president of the Evangelical Alliance, charged the law is unfair to evangelicals. Conversely, other critics complained the Government did not enforce the law because it was trying to win the Catholic and evangelical vote.

The Government reportedly denied entry to Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, self-proclaimed antichrist and leader of the group Growing in Grace. In the end, Miranda did not arrive to participate in a conference on June 30, 2007. In lieu of a visit, Growing in Grace members arranged a teleconference linking Miranda in Miami to his followers in Managua. The group claimed to have a congregation of at least 1,000 members and has been active since 1997.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

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 Abuses and Discrimination

There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Relations among religious groups differed between the two coasts. There was a strong ecumenical spirit on the Atlantic coast, attributed to the long history and mutual respect of the three predominant Christian groups-the Moravian, Episcopalian, and Catholic. However, on the Pacific side, ecumenism was rare and there was competition between the Catholic and evangelical churches for adherents.

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. The U.S. Embassy continued to maintain a regular dialogue with the principal religious leaders and organizations in the country.