U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Guatemala

Section I. Freedom of Religion

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

Historically, Guatemala 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 approximately 60 percent of the population are Catholic and approximately 40 percent are Protestant, primarily evangelical. Other groups are represented, including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and small communities of Jews and Muslims. 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 and Baptists, which are represented worldwide. Within the indigenous population, a significant proportion practices elements of traditional Mayan spirituality, generally in conjunction with another religion, most commonly Catholicism. Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of syncretistic practices than the Catholic Church, which reportedly accepts any pre-Columbian or traditional practices that are not in direct conflict with Catholic dogma.

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), currently the leading opposition party. The FRG is headed by former de facto president and retired General Efrain Rios Montt, an elder of the Church of the Word.

The Government does not have any organized programs to promote interfaith understanding or dialog.

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 April 26, 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Coordinator of the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights, occurred just 2 days after his delivery of the final report of the office's "Recovery of Historical Memory" project, which detailed many of the human rights abuses committed during the 36-year-long internal conflict. Because the Bishop's murder occurred so soon after his public delivery of the report, which held the military, military commissioners, and civil patrol forces responsible for approximately 80 percent of war-related human rights violations, some observers suspect a political motive for the crime. The authorities arrested the slain bishop's assistant and occupant of the parish house, Father Mario Orantes, and charged him on October 1, 1998, with the murder. He was released in February 1999, but remains a suspect. As of the end of the period covered by this report, the Government's investigation of the murder had not yet established the motive for the killing. However, no evidence has emerged that suggests that the murder was motivated by the Bishop's religious faith or practice. The investigation is ongoing.

In May 1998, a foreign Catholic priest left the country because of threats that he claimed were related to his work on the "Recovery of Historical Memory" report during its early stages. An official of the Episcopal Conference said that there were no threats against priests immediately following Gerardi's murder.

In the case arising out of the 1994 murder of evangelical minister Pascual Serech in Chimaltenango, charges remained pending against military commissioner Victor Roman, an alleged collaborator in the crime and also the accused perpetrator of the 1995 murder of evangelical pastor Manuel Saquic. Roman remained at large despite an order for his capture and the offer of a reward.

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.

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 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 or widespread societal discrimination against religious minorities. However, there have been isolated reports of mob lynchings being carried out in remote areas against persons suspected of sorcery.

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

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. U.S. Embassy officials at various levels, including the Ambassador, have met on many occasions with leaders of the Catholic Church, and of Church-sponsored institutions. During the period covered by this report, an embassy political officer spoke with representatives of the country's largest association of evangelical churches, and with its only Jewish rabbi. The Embassy also maintains an active dialog with the Catholic Church hierarchy and affiliated organizations.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

This 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.