U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2001 - Mexico

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

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

A generally amicable relationship among the various religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, in some parts of southern Mexico, political, cultural, and religious tensions continued to limit the free practice of religion within some communities. Most such incidents occurred in the state of Chiapas.

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. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 1,220,663 square miles, and its population is approximately 97.48 million.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Computation (INEGI), 87.99 percent of the respondents in the 2000 census identified themselves at least nominally as Roman Catholic. In 1990 approximately 90 percent did so. There are an estimated 11,000 Roman Catholic churches, and 14,000 ordained Catholic priests and nuns. An additional estimated 90,000 laypersons work in the Catholic Church system.

Other religious categories enumerated in the 2000 census are: Pentecostal and Neopentecostal evangelicals at 1.62 percent; other Protestant Evangelical groups, 2.87 percent; members of Jehovah's Witnesses, 1.25 percent; "historical" Protestants, .71 percent; Seventh-Day Adventists, .58 percent; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), .25 percent; Jewish, .05 percent; and other religions, .31 percent. Press reports have estimated that there are more than 5,000 Protestant churches and 7,000 pastors.

There is no single definitive source on the size of each Protestant denomination. A January 2000 press report indicated that Presbyterians account for 1 percent of the total population; Baptists, 0.1 percent; Methodists, 0.04 percent; Anglicans, 0.1 percent; and Lutherans, 0.01 percent. Official figures sometimes differed from the membership numbers offered by religious groups. For example, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church claims a nationwide membership of 600,000 to 700,000; however, according to the 2000 census only 488,945 persons identified themselves as such. Likewise, some Protestant evangelical groups claim that their coreligionists constitute close to 60 percent of the population in Chiapas state; however, according to the 2000 census only 21.9 percent of respondents in Chiapas identify themselves as Protestant.

In the 2000 census, 3.53 percent of respondents indicated "no religion" and 0.85 percent did not specify a religion.

Of the 5,854 associations registered with the Federal Government, approximately 51 percent are Protestant evangelical and 48.59 percent are non-Protestant Christian, including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox. Non-Christian organizations represent 0.4 percent of all associations registered. A wide variety of Christian foreign missionary groups operate in the country.

The non-Catholic Christian population is concentrated primarily in the south. According to INEGI figures, Chiapas state, with approximately 4 percent of the country's population, has the largest non-Catholic population at 36.2 percent, compared to the national average of approximately 12 percent. The state of Tabasco's non-Catholics represent approximately 29.6 percent of state residents, followed by Campeche state at approximately 28.7 percent and Quintana Roo state at approximately 26.8 percent.

Some indigenous peoples in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Yucatan practice a syncretistic religion that mixes Catholic and pre-Hispanic Mayan religious beliefs.

In some communities, especially in the south, there is a correlation between political party and religion. Furthermore, whatever their political affiliations, local leaders often manipulate religious tensions in their communities for their own political or economic benefit (see Sections II and III).

Approximately 55 percent of persons surveyed 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 in 2000.

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, there are some restrictions. State and municipal governments generally protect this right; however, some local officials infringe on religious freedom, especially in the south.

The Constitution states that everyone is free to profess their chosen religious belief and to practice the ceremonies and acts of worship of their respective belief. Congress may not enact laws that establish or prohibit any religion. The Constitution also provides for the separation of church and state. The 1992 Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship defines the administrative remedies that protect the right to religious freedom.

Religious associations must register with the Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Federal Secretariat of Government (SSAR) in order to operate legally. Although the Government rejects a few applications because of incomplete documentation, the registration process is routine. An estimated 5,854 religious associations are registered. During the period covered by this report, the SSAR had registered 205 associations and rejected 2 applications because they did not meet the registration criteria.

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

The SSAR promotes religious tolerance and investigates cases of religious intolerance. All religious associations have equal access to the SSAR for registering complaints. SSAR officials generally are responsive and helpful in mediating disputes among communities. When parties present a religious dispute to the SSAR, it attempts to mediate a solution acceptable to all. If mediation should fail, the parties can submit the problem to the SSAR for binding arbitration. If the parties do not agree to submit to binding arbitration, one or the other may elect to resort to judicial redress. Destruction of property or causing physical harm to other persons are criminal acts and prosecutable under the law. Municipal and state officials generally are responsive and helpful in mediating disputes among communities. However, when a mediated solution cannot be found, officials are not aggressive in pursuing legal remedies against local leaders (see Section III).

The SSAR investigated 14 cases during 2000 and another 11 during the first half of 2001 and reportedly resolved 11 cases. Of the cases submitted since 1993, 79 remained open at the end of the period covered by this report. The SSAR's new Director of Religious Associations traveled to Chiapas 3 times during the period covered by this report to seek solutions to tensions in various communities. Five states, mostly in the south, have their own under secretaries for religious affairs.

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. After independence was won in 1821, the Church's vast wealth and political influence spurred a powerful anticlerical movement that found political expression in the Liberal party. The

Catholic Church was opposed to Liberal government policies and supported rebel Conservatives in the mid-19th Century. It later welcomed the country's occupation by a French army. In the early 20th century, the Church's collaboration with the dictator Porfirio Diaz earned it the enmity of the victors in the Mexican Revolution. Consequently, severe restrictions on the rights of the Church and members of the clergy were written into the country's present Constitution. The federal government's attempt to enforce those restrictions in the 1920s led to an open revolt by Catholic peasants and violent Government repression during the 1926-29 Cristero Rebellion.

Tensions between the Church and the State eased after 1940. However, 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 lifted almost all restrictions on the Catholic Church. This latter action included granting all 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.

Of nine official holidays, two are associated with Christian religious events (Good Friday and Christmas Day). In addition, most employers give holiday leave on Holy Thursday, All Soul's Day, Virgin of Guadalupe Day, and Christmas Eve.

Religious instruction is prohibited in public schools, but religious associations are free to maintain their own private schools, which receive no public funds. Primary level home schooling for religious reasons is neither prohibited nor supported by the law; however, to continue on to a secondary school, one must attend an accredited primary school. The law does not prohibit secondary level home schooling at home.

Religious associations must notify the Government of their intent to hold a religious meeting outside of a licensed place of worship. The Government received 10,629 such notifications during 2000 and the first half of 2001. For the first time, a large scale Protestant evangelical gathering took place in Mexico City's central square on October 14, 2000. According to police, at least 15,000 persons attended, while organizers claimed that 3 times that many were present.

The Government requires religious groups to apply for a permit to construct new buildings or to convert existing buildings into new churches. The Government granted 7,139 such permits between 1992 and August 1998, the period for which most recent statistics are available, and religious groups report no difficulty in obtaining government permission for these activities.

Since assuming office in December 2001, the Secretary of Government has initiated a series of informal dialogs with representatives from various religions to discuss issues of mutual concern. An Interfaith Council, incorporated in 1995, includes official representatives from the Anglican, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Lutheran, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh Dharma, and Sufi Islam communities.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Constitution 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. The federal Government limits the number of visas each religious group is allowed. However, the Government has granted more than 30,000 such visas since 1994.

By law religious associations may not own or administer broadcast radio or television stations; however, 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.

There are reports that municipal officials in Chiapas have suspended Protestant evangelical radio programs, including those of the Adventist Church, on technical and administrative grounds, despite the federal government's issuance of a permit. Local officials reportedly claim that the Adventist Church's permit lacks the proper seal.

On October 16, 2000, the director of a secondary school in Monterrey, state of Nuevo Leon, expelled 16 students for not saluting the national flag. The students, members of Jehovah's Witnesses, refused based on their religious beliefs. The State Education Secretariat and the Nuevo Leon Commission of Human Rights reversed the expulsions.

Any building for religious purposes constructed pursuant to a permit after 1992 is the property of the religious association that built it. All religious buildings erected before 1992 (approximately 85,000) are "national patrimony" and owned by the State. From July 1, 2000 to May 2001, the Government decided 769 property claims in favor of churches, which resulted in religious groups gaining 964 properties. The Government has denied 247 property claims since July 1, 2000 and a total of 2,047 since 1993, because the properties in question were deemed to be owned by the State.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In parts of Chiapas, local leaders of indigenous communities sometimes regard evangelical groups and Catholic lay catechists as unwelcome outside influences and potential economic and political threats. While religious differences often were a prominent feature of such incidents, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power were very often the underlying causes of the problems. As a result, these leaders sometimes acquiesced in, or ordered, the harassment or expulsion of individuals belonging primarily, but not exclusively, to Protestant evangelical groups. In past years, expulsions involved the burning of homes and crops, beatings, and, occasionally, killings. However, there were no killings reported during the period covered by this report. On several occasions, village officials temporarily detained Evangelicals for resisting participation in community festivals.

The Chiapas-based Evangelical Commission for the Defense of Human Rights (CEDEH) claims that municipal authorities have expelled 30,000 persons from their communities in the last 30 years, at least partly on religious grounds. However, this report was not corroborated, and a representative from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) told the press that there are no official statistics on those so displaced.

In late January 2001, local leaders expelled 150 Protestant evangelicals from their homes in Justo Sierra, Chiapas and beat several men, according to the CEDEH. A formal complaint was filed with the state prosecutor's office in Comitan, and on June 27 state judicial police arrested three community officials. The case was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

On April 12, 2001, in the community of San Nicolas, Ixmiquilpan municipality, Hidalgo, more than 30 Protestant Evangelical families were threatened by a local official with expulsion by June 18, 2001, if they did not contribute money and cement blocks to a community celebration. Community members beat three persons as they attempted to videotape the water being cut off to six of these families. In addition, one Evangelical reportedly has received a death threat. Despite community meetings mediated by the SSAR, the dispute had not been resolved by end of the period covered by this report, and the local political leader continued to insist that the Protestant Evangelical families owe "community dues." The deadline for expulsion of the families passed without their eviction, although they remained without water service at the end of the period covered by this report.

In July 2000, local leaders reportedly detained four Protestant evangelicals in Tres Cruces for failing to pay a customary fine for having converted to a Protestant faith and for listening to religious music in their home. The detainees were released once the fine was paid.

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 Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In November 2000, the federal Secretariat of Government signed formal agreements with the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Michoacan, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz to promote prompt, efficient, and coordinated action in religious affairs, particularly in response to conflicts caused by religious intolerance.

Since December 2000, the Secretariat of Government has held more than 80 meetings with the leaders of religious groups in an attempt to become familiar with their concerns. In March and May 2001, the SSAR sponsored workshops for Chiapas state authorities on mediation and arbitration as solutions to religious disputes. At the conclusion of the May workshop, Dr. Alvaro Castro Estrada, the SSAR's Director General of Religious Associations, met with 60 religious leaders in Chiapas to discuss religious tolerance and protections afforded by the law.

In April 2001, the Chiapas state government and the CNDH organized a forum on Tolerance and Religious Diversity in San Cristobal de Las Casas. The SSAR also is cooperating with the CNDH and the National Indigenous Institute (INI) to increase tolerance among communities in the south. On June 13, 2001, these three agencies signed an agreement to cooperate on public education, diagnostic studies on religious disputes, and training and awareness-raising workshops. In addition, the SSAR is exploring ways to involve university law schools in the mediation process in areas of tension.

According to a representative of the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, the situation for their foreign visitors improved significantly in 2001. Unlike in previous years, foreign clergy and visitors to the Diocese have been able to arrange their immigration status easily and received prompt attention from the relevant government authorities. For example, Father Loren Riebe, expelled from Chiapas in 1995 along with two other foreign priests, returned to San Cristobal in April 2001 for a conference. The social and political situation in Chiapas remains tense, but the new bishop of San Cristobal, is said to enjoy a more productive relationship with state officials than did his predecessor.

Representatives of Protestant organizations in both Mexico City and Chiapas reported that interfaith understanding has improved at the highest levels, and there were several reports of improvements at the local level. According to CEDEH, syncretist Catholics and Protestant evangelicals in at least 20 parishes are cooperating on development projects that serve their entire communities.

On August 3, 2000, Protestant Evangelical and Catholic representatives in Oaxaca ended 47 years of tension between their communities by signing a peace accord in Santiago Jaltepec. Under this accord, the evangelical community promised to respect the town's religious customs and traditions as well as the local assembly's laws. The Catholic community and local authorities promised to integrate the Evangelists into the local assembly and to respect their constitutional rights and individual freedoms. In addition, development aid that had been confiscated by the local authorities was returned to the evangelical community.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There are generally amicable relations among the various religions; however, there is religious intolerance in, and expulsions from, certain indigenous communities, particularly those in Chiapas, whose residents follow syncretistic (Catholic/Mayan) religious practices (See Section II). Competition for adherents has contributed to tension among various religious groups, particularly in the South. Syncretistic practices are not merely an extension of religious belief, but also the basis for the social and cultural life of the community. Therefore, other religious practices are perceived as different and strange, and also are seen as threats to indigenous culture. Endemic poverty, land tenure disputes, and lack of educational opportunities also contribute to tensions in many of these communities. This tension has, at times, resulted in violence. In some southern indigenous communities, abandoning syncretistic practices for Protestant beliefs is perceived as a threat to the unique identity of that community.

In parts of Chiapas, local leaders of indigenous communities sometimes acquiesced in, or ordered, the harassment or expulsion of individuals belonging primarily, but not exclusively, to Protestant evangelical groups (See Section II). Abuses related to these incidents apparently did not occur solely 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 very often were the underlying causes of the problems. The most common incidents of intolerance arose in connection with traditional community celebrations. Protestant evangelicals often resist making financial donations demanded by community norms that will go partly to local celebrations of Catholic religious holidays, and resist participating in festivals involving alcohol.

There were a number of significant cases of religious intolerance caused by societal attitudes during the period covered by this report, the majority of which occurred in Chiapas. For example, about 130 children of Protestant evangelicals have been denied access to the local public schools in 6 communities in the municipality of San Juan Chamula every year since 1994. When local officials investigated, school officials reportedly denied the accusations and claimed that Evangelical parents were not sending their children to school.

Ninety-seven Evangelicals from Icaluntic returned to their homes in 2000 and received compensation for damages; however, the situation remains tense. The Evangelicals reported receiving threats and warnings that they risked being expelled again.

In July 2000, syncretist Catholics expelled 29 Protestant Evangelical families in Plan de Ayala and destroyed 14 of their homes. The state sent 400 police officers to restore order. Syncretists blocked the road to the community and threw stones as the police forced their way through. The state prosecutor pledged to hold accountable those responsible for the expulsions, and the authorities charged 16 individuals with blocking the roadway and injuring 3 police officers. On July 23, state authorities and community representatives signed an agreement allowing the families to return but forcing them to relocate 3 miles away from their original houses. The situation reportedly has calmed considerably but remained tense at the end of the period covered by this report.

In August 2000, three persons were detained in Paste for refusing to participate in a local celebration. Members of the syncretistic community burned their homes while the three were in detention. However, this report could not be confirmed.

The Adventist Church reported that individuals in the communities of Vicente Guerrero and Juan Sabines have complained that the opening of an Adventist church in neighboring Francisco I. Madero, Tecpatan municipality would violate local "uses and customs." In March 2001, Francisco I. Madero residents requested local government assistance in relieving tension among the communities and convincing the neighboring communities of the Adventists' right to use their place of worship. This report could not be corroborated.

In May 2001, four other incidents of intolerance were reported, three in Chiapas and one in Puebla state. In two Chiapas communities, Protestant evangelicals reportedly were detained by community members for failing to make financial donations in support of the syncretistic Catholic celebration of Santa Cruz. Adventists in Tapachula were accused of playing loud music in front of Catholic churches while Mass was being conducted, allegedly infringing upon the rights of their neighbors to unimpeded worship. Finally, in a Puebla community, an Adventist pastor was threatened while proselytizing.

Government officials, the national ombudsman, and interfaith groups are conducting discussions about incidents of intolerance in some parts of the south, in order to promote social peace.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Throughout the reporting period Embassy staff have met with government officials, staff of nongovernmental organizations, and members of religious groups to discuss and raise religious freedom issues.

Throughout the period covered by this report, Embassy staff met frequently with officials in the Subsecretariat for Religious Affairs within the Secretariat of Government to discuss religious freedom. On trips throughout the country, Embassy staff met religious leaders including the Cardinal of Guadalajara, the Vicar and the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, and leaders of the Chiapas-based Buen Samaritano Evangeli Group. The Embassy was in contact with the National Human Rights Commission, the president of the Evangelical Commission in Defense of Human Rights and the Mexican Episcopal Conference (Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference) to discuss religious freedom issues. Embassy staff also visited the Director General of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and representatives of U.S. faith-based organizations in Mexico City to become familiar with their concerns.

The International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 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 law provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to Congress by September 1 of each year, or the first day thereafter on which the appropriate House of Congress is in session, "an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom." The 2001 Report covers the period from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001.

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