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

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There is a generally amicable relationship among the various religions in society, which contributes to the free practice of religion; however, in parts of the state of Chiapas continued political, cultural, and religious tensions have limited the free practice of religion within some communities.

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 the right to practice the religion of one's choice, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions.

Religious groups cannot operate legally without registering as religious associations with the Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Federal Secretariat of Government. Although the Government does reject a few applications, usually because of incomplete documentation, the registration process is routine. About 5,650 religious associations are registered. Since July 1, 1999, 174 associations have been registered, and 3 were rejected. The three applications were rejected because of incomplete documentation under the Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship.

To be registered as a religious association, the Government requires that a group articulate its fundamental doctrines and body of religious beliefs, not be organized primarily to make money, and not promote acts physically harmful or dangerous to its members. Religious groups must be registered to apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, and to hold religious meetings outside of their place of worship.

The current situation of religious freedom reflects the historic tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern state. For most of the country's nearly 300 years as a Spanish colony, the Catholic Church involved itself heavily in politics. This involvement continued throughout the post-independence period and through the end of the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the 20th century. Following the Revolution, the Constitution included severe restrictions on the rights of the Church and of members of clergy, reflecting strong anti-clerical feelings. Tensions between the Church and the State eased after 1940, but constitutional restrictions were maintained even as enforcement became progressively lax over the ensuing decades. In 1992 the Government reestablished diplomatic relations with the Holy See and the Government lifted almost all restrictions on the Catholic Church by, among other things, granting religious groups legal status, conceding them limited property rights, and lifting restrictions on the number of priests in the country. However, the law continues to mandate a strict separation of church and state.

The separation between church and state became a topic of debate during the 2000 presidential election campaign. Candidates made numerous public appearances with Catholic Church officials. Onesimo Cepeda, Bishop of Ecatepec, personally congratulated Francisco Labastida for winning the presidential primary election held by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Presidential election winner Vicente Fox, candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), called for revising the Constitution to allow for a closer relationship between church and state. Some persons interpreted statements by leaders of the Church as support for Fox. On March 24, 2000, the Mexican Bishops Conference released a pastoral letter, which warned that the country's democratic transition was not ensured and that an "authoritarian regression," even by electoral means, could not be ruled out. The letter also criticized the use of "intimidation and coercion" of the populace to promote a "fear vote" and called electoral fraud a sin. Secretary of Government Diodoro Carrasco criticized the letter as an example of inappropriate church involvement in politics, but took no punitive action. Although most citizens are Catholic, 57 percent of the population is against religious leaders influencing government decisions, according to a May 2000 poll released by the newspaper Reforma.

Religious Demography

There is no single definitive source on the religious makeup of the population. According to various government, press, and religious group sources, about 89 percent of population of approximately 100 million are at least nominal believers in the Roman Catholic faith. There are 11,000 churches, and 14,000 ordained Catholic priests and nuns in the country. An additional 90,000 laypersons work in the Catholic Church system. Various sources maintain that Protestants account for approximately 6 percent of the population. A recent press report indicates that, of the Protestants, Presbyterians account for 1 percent; Seventh-Day Adventists, 0.81 percent; Jehovah's Witnesses, 0.51 percent; Baptists, 0.1 percent; Methodists, 0.04 percent; Anglicans, 0.01 percent; and Lutherans 0.01 percent of the total population. The Undersecretary of Religious Affairs reported in May 2000 that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) constitutes approximately 0.01 percent of the population; Orthodox Christianity, 0.05 percent; and non-Christian groups, 2 percent (including Judaism, 0.3 percent, and Muslims, 0.4 percent). Three percent of the population do not identify with any organized religion. There is no estimate of the number of atheists or of those who do not practice any religion. Ninety-eight percent of citizens say that they believe in God and 76 percent consider themselves religious. Fifty-five percent attend religious ceremonies at least once a week, 19 percent once a month, and 20 percent less than once a month, according to news reports.

Some indigenous people in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Yucatan practice a syncretistic religion that mixes Catholic and pre-Hispanic Mayan religious beliefs. Chiapas has the highest concentration of Protestants in the country, about 45 percent of the state's population, according to official estimates, although some evangelical Protestant groups claim that the number is closer to 60 percent. The competition among various religious groups for adherents there has contributed to tension among religious groups which has resulted in violence.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government requires religious groups to apply for a permit to construct or convert existing buildings into new churches; 7,139 such permits were granted between 1992 and August 1998 and religious groups report no difficulty in obtaining Government permission for these activities.

Religious buildings constructed under permits after 1992 are the property of the respective churches, whereas previously, religious buildings were declared "national patrimony" and the State claimed ownership of about 85,000 religious structures. From July 1, 1999 to May 16, 2000, the Government granted decisions on 661 property claims in favor of churches, which resulted in religious groups gaining 854 properties. Religious groups have registered 8,834 properties with the Government. The Government has denied 240 property claims since July 1, 1999 and 1,560 since 1993, because the properties in question were deemed to be owned by the State.

Religious associations must notify the Government of their intent to hold a religious meeting outside of a licensed place of worship. The Government received 2,682 such notifications between January and mid-May, 2000, and did not deny permission for any religious meetings. On May 6, 2000, 50,000 persons celebrated the first large-scale outdoor Catholic Mass in Mexico City's central square since 1924.

The law bars clergy from holding public office, advocating partisan political views, supporting political candidates, or opposing the laws or institutions of the State.

To visit the country for religious purposes, foreign religious workers must secure government permission. Although the Government limits the number of visas each religious group is allowed, it has granted visas to 25,761 foreign religious workers since 1994, 2,555 of them in the first 6 months of 2000. Some religious groups allege that it is government policy to keep foreign religious practitioners out of Chiapas and Oaxaca, thus making it more difficult for religious workers going to those states to obtain visas. The Government maintains that it does not deny visas based on religion, and does not expel religious workers based on their religious activities. Rather the Government argues that foreign religious workers have been expelled for inappropriate political behavior.

Relations were difficult between the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, and the Government during the tenure of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, which ended in April 2000. The situation in Chiapas is a result of a complex mix of economic, ethnic, political, and religious tensions. The San Cristobal Diocese has complained that its foreign clergy are unable to get their visa status extended or rectified (many enter on tourist visas). In February 1998, the Government expelled French Catholic priest Michel Chanteau, who had been the parish priest of Chenalho, Chiapas, for 32 years, on immigration grounds. Chanteau had blamed the Government publicly for the December 1997 Acteal massacre. In 1995 the Government expelled Father Loren Riebe and two other foreign priests from Chiapas. In March 1999, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the three priests' rights to religious freedom had been violated and recommended that the expulsion order be reversed. The Commission also recommended that the officials involved in the case be investigated and sanctioned. The Government maintains that the priests were expelled solely for their political activity and rejected the Commission's recommendations.

Local officials in Chiapas provided active or tacit support to indigenous groups that physically prevented Catholic catechists from occupying and opening existing churches. Local bosses at times acquiesced in or ordered the harassment or violent expulsion of largely evangelical groups (see Section II).

The Constitution mandates a strict separation of church and state. Religious instruction is prohibited in public schools, but religious associations are free to maintain their own private schools, which receive no public funds. The Catholic Church maintains its own schools, but complains of government restrictions on the running of those schools and the raising and spending of school funds. It also contends that the right to learn the religion of one's choice should not be limited to those who can afford to pay for a parochial school education.

Although religious associations cannot own or administer broadcast radio or television stations, the Catholic Church owns and operates a national cable television channel. Government permission is required to transmit religious programming on broadcast radio or television, and permission is granted routinely. In 1999 the Government authorized the radio and television transmission of 7,297 Masses and other religious activities, and in the first 6 months of 2000 it authorized 2,858 such transmissions. It did not deny any requests.

The Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs promotes religious tolerance and investigates cases of religious intolerance. Often these cases involve infringements of religious freedom by local governments, especially in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Since 1993 the Under Secretariat has investigated 528 cases, including 54 in 1999 and 19 in the first 6 months 2000, and has concluded 272 of them. A total of 256 cases remain open.

In Ensenada, Baja Californaia, Veronica Torres Armenta, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, was denied access to school because her faith does not permit homage to national symbols, such as the flag. After criticism from the state human rights commission the state secretary of education ordered that the girl be allowed to matriculate.

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 prisoners or detainees. The Government continued to investigate the case of 13 Protestants arrested in Mitziton, Chiapas in June 1999, but reported no new findings on the case. Police arrested the Protestants as they were building a church.

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

There is a generally amicable relationship among the various religions; however, in the state of Chiapas, tension between religious groups and between progovernment armed civilian groups and religious laypersons, persisted, and at times resulted in violence.

The Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, has complained that progovernment armed civilian groups threaten and harass its lay catechists. Moreover, human rights groups allege that such groups murdered five catechists between 1994 and 1997. Nonetheless, the motive for these killings has not been established, nor has anyone been apprehended or charged. The diocese also has alleged that these groups vandalized 28 Catholic churches in Chiapas and caused more than 20 other churches to close between 1994 and 1997. Church closures often occurred when local indigenous groups physically prevented Catholic catechists from occupying and opening existing churches, with the active or tacit support of local officials.

After years of neglect, the Chiapas state government has been trying to mediate between communities divided by religious differences. Its efforts occasionally have been successful. For example, state government authorities negotiated solutions to conflicts in San Juan Chamula, including the return of groups expelled in 1998 and 1999.

There is a long history of religious intolerance in, and expulsions from, certain indigenous communities whose residents follow syncretistic (Catholic-Mayan) religious practices and view other religious practices as a threat to indigenous culture. In parts of Chiapas, local bosses of indigenous communities sometimes regard evangelical groups and Catholic lay catechists as unwelcome outside influences, and potential economic and political threats. As a result, these bosses sometimes acquiesced in, or actually ordered, the harassment or expulsion of individuals belonging primarily, but not exclusively, to Protestant evangelical groups. In many cases, these expulsions involved the burning of homes and crops, beatings, and, occasionally, killings. These problems more frequently arise in "autonomous indigenous areas" under the influence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), according to evangelical leaders. The abuse related to these and other incidents, apparently did not occur solely and exclusively on the basis of religion. While religious differences were often a prominent feature of such incidents, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power were very often the basic cause of the problems.

There were three reports of conflict between Catholic/Mayan syncretists and Protestant Evangelicals in Chiapas. On July 18, 1999, Catholic/Mayan syncretists expelled 97 Evangelicals from their homes in Icaluntic. The displaced group relocated temporarily to San Cristobal, under the protection of the State Secretariat for Attention to Indigenous Affairs. Two attempts by the displaced group to return to Icaluntic failed. As part of the agreement that allowed the Evangelicals to return, the Government paid them $77,000 (730,000 pesos) as compensation for damages to their houses, crops, livestock, and other property. Consequently, on December 3, 250 police, federal and state officials, as well as representatives of the Chiapas state human rights commission escorted the Evangelicals to their homes. In addition state police officers stayed temporarily in Icaluntic to prevent conflict between the Catholic/Mayan syncretists and the Evangelicals.

On March 5, 2000, Catholic/Mayan syncretists evicted at least 70 evangelical families from Plan de Ayala, Chiapas. Later that month 250 state police escorted the Evangelicals back to Plan de Ayala, where they remained for 2 weeks. However, in early April the Catholic/Mayan syncretists again evicted 20 of the evangelical families from that community. On April 16, 2000, the Catholic/Mayan syncretists drove out the 70 police officers stationed there to keep the peace and set up roadblocks around the town. The following day the expelled Evangelicals attempted to return to the community, but were prevented from doing so by the roadblock. Expelled evangelical families reported that the Catholic/Mayan syncretists demanded that they sign a statement renouncing their faith as a prerequisite for their return to the community. Attempting to mediate, governor Roberto Albores offered social programs to the Catholic/Mayan syncretists if they allowed the Evangelicals access to the town. The Catholics accepted the offer, but denied blocking access to community members, claiming that they only wanted to "prevent strangers from infiltrating the community and causing problems." They removed the roadblock, but tensions remain.

Tension between Catholic/Mayan syncretists and evangelical groups continues to be a problem in the municipality of San Juan Chamula. The Evangelical Commission for the Defense of Human Rights claims that municipal authorities have expelled 30,000 persons in the last 30 years. The children of Evangelicals have been denied access to the local public schools in six communities since 1994.

Adventists in Oaxaca report that families who were members of their denomination were expelled from the community of Santo Tomas Kirri. In Santo Domingo, Mexico state, Adventists report that they were forced temporarily to close their church. In Chiapas the Adventists viewed the local government as reluctant to intervene in towns governed by traditional "practices and customs."

On May 17, 2000, the body of an alleged witch doctor was found in Comitan, Chiapas. The motive for his death is suspected to be the victim's practice of witchcraft, which is common in rural areas of southern Mexico; no suspects were arrested or charged.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, and religious leaders. Embassy officials have emphasized that the U.S. supports religious freedom worldwide, and takes a proactive approach in specific cases.

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

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