Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April 2014, 13:11 GMT

U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 - Colombia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 5 September 2000
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 - Colombia , 5 September 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8940.html [accessed 19 April 2014]
Comments This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The 2000 Report covers the period from July 1, 1999 to June 30, 2000
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

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.

Relations between various faiths are generally amicable, although some indigenous leaders reportedly were intolerant of nontraditional forms of worship. The Roman Catholic Church enjoys a privileged position in society, but many different religions are practiced. Paramilitaries sometimes target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla movements regularly target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons, and committed acts of killing, kidnaping, and extortion, as well as inhibiting free religious expression.

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. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

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

The law states that there is no official or state church or religion but adds that the State "is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians' religious sentiment." Some observers have interpreted this to mean that the State unofficially sanctions a privileged position for the Roman Catholic Church. (Roman Catholicism was the country's official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution.) A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to religious characterizations of the country.

The law on freedom of religion provides a mechanism for religions to obtain the status of recognized legal entities. The Government extends two different kinds of recognition to religions: recognition of basic juridical personality, and special public recognition. The Ministry of Interior regularly grants the former type of recognition. The only requirement is submission of a formal request and basic organizational information. Additionally, any foreign religious faith that wishes to establish a presence in the country must document official recognition by authorities from its home country. The Ministry of Interior may reject any requests that do not comply fully with these established requirements or that violate fundamental constitutional rights. Among the religions practiced in the country are Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, the Mennonite Church, Calvinism, Lutheranism, the Baptist Church, Presbyterianism, the Methodist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Islam, and Judaism.

Accession to the 1997 public law agreement between the State and non-Roman Catholic religious entities currently is required for any religion that wishes to minister to its adherents via any public institution. For example, participation in the 1997 public law agreement is required to minister to soldiers, public hospital patients, and prisoners and to provide religious instruction in public schools, and the State only recognizes marriages celebrated by churches that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. When considering granting accession to the 1997 agreement, the Government takes into account the number of adherents of the religion, the degree of popular acceptance the religion enjoys within society, and other factors deemed relevant, such as the content of the religion's statutes and required behavioral norms. To date, 18 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches have received this special status. More than 40 churches have requested accession to a new public law agreement with the Government, which, the churches propose, would have lower standards for recognition than the 1997 agreement. However, no advances were made toward a new agreement during the period covered by this report. Some prominent non-Christian religious groups, such as the Jewish community, have not requested state religious recognition.

Due to its special relationship with the State, officially sanctioned in a concordat, the Roman Catholic Church was the only religion that was permitted to minister and teach via public institutions between 1887 and 1991. Although the Catholic Church was separated from the State by the 1991 Constitution, it retains a de facto privileged status.

Religious Demography

Although no official data are available, one 1996 study from Los Andes University concluded that 88 percent of citizens are Roman Catholics (although a large percentage do not practice their faith actively), between 6 and 7 percent belong to other Christian denominations, and the remainder belong to other religious faiths/movements (e.g., Jews, Muslims, animists, adherents of various syncretistic beliefs, agnostics, and atheists). Adherents of some religions are concentrated in specific geographic regions. For example, the vast majority of practitioners of a syncretistic religion that blends Roman Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians of Choco department. Jews are concentrated in the major cities; Muslims are concentrated on the Caribbean coast; and adherents of indigenous animistic religions generally are found in remote, rural areas.

The Constitution provides parents with the right to choose the type of education their children receive, including Roman Catholic or other religious education. It also states that no one shall be obliged to receive religious education of any type in public schools. The Roman Catholic Church and non-Catholic religions and Christian denominations that have acceded to the 1997 public law agreement with the State may provide religious instruction in public schools. (No non-Christian religion currently is a signatory to the 1997 public law agreement.) Religions without this special recognition may establish private parochial schools, provided they comply with Education Ministry requirements. For example, the Jewish community operates its own schools.

The Catholic Church has a unique agreement with the Government to provide schools to rural areas that have no state-run schools. These schools are also tax exempt.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Foreign missionaries require a special visa, which is valid for a maximum of 2 years. The Ministry of Foreign Relations may issue visas to foreign missionaries or members of a foreign religion or denomination, provided that the religion or denomination has received special public recognition. Applicants are required to have a certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior confirming that the religious institution is registered with the Ministry, a certificate issued by the religious institution confirming the applicant's membership in that institution and explaining the purpose of the proposed travel, and proof of economic solvency.

The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided that it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands. There are no other restrictions on missionaries' activities.

Although the Catholic Church was separated from the State by the 1991 Constitution, it retains a de facto privileged status. According to military regulations, only Roman Catholic priests may serve as chaplains.

All legally recognized churches, seminaries, monasteries, and convents are exempt from national and local taxes. Local governments also may exempt from taxes religiously affiliated organizations such as schools and libraries. However, in practice, local governments often exempt only organizations that are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The FARC has placed religious restrictions on persons within the "despeje," the demilitarized zone established in November 1998 in order to facilitate a Government-FARC dialog leading to formal peace talks. For example, in September 1999, the FARC gave a Polish priest 15 days to leave the despeje zone. The FARC guerilla movement did not exclude Roman Catholic and evangelical churches from the arbitrary payment of "war taxes" levied on many organizations in the despeje and elsewhere in the country.

Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom

In April 1999, the army arrested Colonel Jorge Plazas Acevedo, the chief of intelligence for the army's 13th Brigade, for allegedly heading a kidnaping gang believed responsible for the kidnaping and killing of several Jewish industrialists, including Benjamin Khoudari, whose body was found in April 1999. The authorities also arrested a lieutenant and a sergeant under Plazas's command, and placed all three in preventive detention in April. The military judiciary determined that the three should be tried in civilian courts. In July 1999, the army retired Plazas, and an Attorney General's disciplinary investigation of him was underway at year's end. In connection with the crime, the authorities also arrested two former guerrillas who had become army informants; they remained in detention and under investigation at year's end.

Both the Constitutional Court (on October 7, 1998) and the Council of State (on November 19, 1998) found that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonite seminarians had been forced regularly into military service, in violation of constitutional and other provisions for conscientious objectors. Both the Court and the Council ordered the Government to exempt the two Churches' seminarians in the same manner that it exempted Roman Catholic seminarians. Since the Court and Council's rulings, neither Church has experienced further problems of this sort.

Paramilitaries sometimes target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla movements regularly target representatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, generally for political reasons, and committed acts of killing, kidnaping, and extortion, as well as inhibiting free religious expression.

Faced with threats by paramilitaries or guerrillas, many evangelical preachers were forced to refrain from publicly discussing the country's internal conflict. The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church also reported that paramilitaries, the ELN, and the FARC sometimes threatened rural priests with death for speaking out against them.

On November 21, 1999, the bodies of Roman Catholic priest Jorge Luis Maza and Spanish aid worker Inigu Egiluz were pulled from the Atrato river in Choco department. Witnesses reported that the boat in which the pair had been travelling was struck by a boat operated by paramilitaries. Security forces later arrested nine paramilitaries in connection with the crime.

In October 1999, paramilitaries distributed pamphlets at the University of Antioquia campus in Medellin threatening evangelical Christian students with murder.

On May 18, 1999, members of a small guerrilla group, the People's Liberation Army (EPL), killed Catholic priest Pedro Leon Camacho in Cachira, Norte de Santander, after he had denounced publicly the guerrilla group's abuses of the civilian population.

The United Pentecostal Church of Colombia reported that on August 2, 1999, the FARC killed two of its preachers, Jose Honorio Trivino and Miguel Antonio Ospina. Two other preachers and 25 evangelical church members also were reported killed between January and August 1999, mostly in areas greatly affected by the conflict. FARC members were believed responsible for a majority of the killings.

Guerrillas were suspected of the April 2000 massacre of 2 evangelical preachers and 12 church members at Hato Nuevo, Carmen de Bolivar, Bolivar department.

There have been unconfirmed reports that guerrillas attacked rural evangelical Christians and their churches in the mistaken belief that the churches were fronts for U.S. Government activities.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that Roman Catholic churches in Huila, Tolima, Cauca, and Antioquia departments were destroyed during guerrilla attacks on towns and police stations.

On July 30, 1999, the Prosecutor General's human rights unit indicted "Arley Leal," commander of the FARC's 32nd Front, for the September 1998 killing of Catholic priest Alcides Jimenez Chicangana. Jimenez was shot 18 times as he gave a sermon in a Catholic church hours after he led a public rally for peace. Charges against narcotics trafficker Luis Angel Canas, who was detained in 1998 for the crime, were dropped.

According to the Christian Union Movement, the FARC killed 46 of the movement's affiliated preachers between January 1999 and June 2000. As of June 2000, the group reported that the FARC had forced the closure of over 300 evangelical churches in Meta, Guajira, Tolima, Vaupes, Guainia, Guaviare, Vichada, Casanare, and Arauca departments. Additionally, the group claimed that the FARC extorted and, in many cases, forced the closure of rural evangelical schools.

On August 16, 1999, members of the EPL kidnaped the Roman Catholic Bishop of Tibu, Jose de Jesus Quintero, between El Tarra and Tibu, Norte de Santander department, and freed him on September 19. Quintero had spoken out against a rash of paramilitary and guerrilla massacres in the area. He had been kidnaped previously by the ELN in 1997.

On May 30, 1999, members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnaped over 140 persons, including at least 3 American citizens and a Catholic priest, who were attending Mass at the La Maria Catholic church in Cali. The attack apparently represented an attempt by the ELN to raise its political profile; there was no indication that the victims were targeted specifically because of their religious beliefs. All eventually were released. In April 2000, the Administrative Department of Security captured Ovidio Antonio Parra Cortes, the ELN leader suspected of directing the kidnaping; the army later arrested seven men believed to have participated in the kidnaping.

Despite increased pressure by the Government on the FARC to account for three American missionaries from the New Tribes Mission, who were kidnaped by FARC guerrillas in January 1993, their whereabouts and condition remained unknown.

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.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

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 between various faiths are generally amicable. The Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical churches reported that some indigenous leaders were intolerant of nontraditional forms of worship.

Jewish community leaders estimated that as many as 20 percent of the country's Jewish community had fled the country as of July 1999. Among the principal causes was a string of kidnapings, assaults, and murders affecting Jewish business leaders.

On April 11, 2000, at least three Mormon temples in Cali were bombed. No one was injured in the attacks, which damaged buildings. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Some indigenous groups with distinct animistic or syncretistic religious beliefs are targeted regularly for attack by guerrilla or paramilitary groups. However, these attacks generally are motivated by political differences (whether real or perceived) or by questions of land ownership, rather than by religious differences.

On March 27, 2000, unidentified perpetrators killed Roman Catholic priest Hugo Duque Hernandez at Supia, Caldas department.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains regular contact with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and other religions, and discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

Search Refworld

Countries