U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2002 - Venezuela

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, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Embassy 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 approximately 350,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 24.5 million. According to the latest government figures, in 2001 approximately 70 percent of the population were Roman Catholic, approximately 29 percent were Protestant, and the remaining

1 percent practiced other religions or were atheists. There are small but influential Muslim and Jewish communities. The capital city of Caracas has a large mosque, and the country's Jewish community is very active. According to the Government, Protestant churches are the country's most rapidly growing religious community.

There are approximately 4,000 foreign missionaries working in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition that the practice of a religion does not violate public morality, decency, and the public order, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

The Directorate of Justice and Religion (DJR) in the Ministry of Interior and Justice is the government office responsible for maintaining a registry of religious groups, disbursing funds to the Roman Catholic Church, and promoting awareness and understanding among the various religious communities. Each local church must register with the DJR to hold legal status as a religious organization and to own property. The requirements for registration are largely administrative. However, some groups have complained that the process of registration is slow and inefficient.

In 1964 the Government and the Holy See signed a concordat that underscores the country's historical ties to the Roman Catholic Church and provides government subsidies to the Church, including to its social programs and schools. Other religious groups do not receive such subsidies.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion. However, the Catholic Church receives subsidies not granted to other churches, and there are some restrictions on the legal rights of religious groups.

The Government annually has provided the equivalent at the time of more than $1.5 million (approximately 1.1 billion bolivars) in subsidies to the Catholic Church's schools and social programs that help the poor. Other religious groups are free to establish and run their own schools, which do not receive subsidies from the Government. However, since January 2002 the Catholic Church has not received any payments from the Government, presumably due to budgetary restraints.

The military chaplain corps is made up exclusively of Roman Catholic priests, and although service members of other faiths are allowed to attend church services of their own religion, they do not have the same access to clergy members that Catholic service members do.

The Catholic Church has expressed concern that a new program for government-provided itinerant school supervisors could, in theory, become involved in the operation of private religious schools, under the provisions of an October 2000 decree by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports. However, as of the end of the period covered by this report, this decree has had no impact on the operation of private religious schools.

In May 2001, representatives of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Churches rejected participation in the newly created "Interreligious Parliament of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" (PIV), a Government-organized group of numerous religious organizations whose stated purpose is to coordinate their social programs. Catholic Church representatives had expressed concerns for the Church's autonomy and had claimed that the PIV appeared to be an effort to centralize unduly the social work of various churches and religions. However, in the period covered by this report, the PIV was largely inactive.

In November 2000, as part of a broader ruling on whether certain entities qualify as members of the Government's definition of civil society, the Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations are not part of civil society, and that as such they may not represent Venezuelan citizens in court nor bring their own legal actions. The Catholic Church expressed concern over this ruling; however, as of the end of the period covered by this report, this ruling had had no impact in practice on Church activities.

Foreign missionaries require a special visa to enter the country, which is obtained through consulates in the missionary's home country. Missionaries generally are not refused entry, but many complain that the process of obtaining a visa often takes months or years due to general bureaucratic inefficiency.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In April 2002, the National Guard harassed missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), by conducting unnecessary strip searches and intimidating them. Although it is unclear whether the missionaries were targeted because of their religion or because of their foreign citizenship, the intimidation did impede their right to conduct their missionary work.

On several occasions, the Roman Catholic Church has been monitored or threatened by state agents for political reasons. There were no such cases reported during the period covered by this report; however, in a speech on January 24, 2002, President Chavez called the Catholic Church "a tumor on society," and pro-Government demonstrators have vandalized the Caracas Cathedral and harassed priests (see Section III). The Government has done little to respond to these acts.

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the various religious communities generally are amicable. However, during the first 3 months of 2002, several small bombs were planted at Catholic churches throughout Caracas; there was no information regarding the responsible parties. One woman was injured; following that incident, the Cardinal closed all Catholic churches for 1 week. The Government did not investigate any of the cases.

Since December 2001, large groups of pro-government supporters have gathered in a downtown section of Caracas at the doors of the Cathedral. The Cathedral has been vandalized with anti-Church, pro-Government graffiti, and priests have reported being harassed by the demonstrators. Most choose not to wear their cassocks outside of the church itself, fearing physical harm. Although the Government is not endorsing these acts, it has done little, if anything, to protect the clergy or churchgoers from the crowds.

The Catholic Church has been a vocal participant in the national political debate.

There are numerous ecumenical groups throughout the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The Embassy maintains close contacts with the various religious communities and meets periodically with the DJR. The Ambassador meets regularly with religious authorities, and the Embassy facilitates communication between U.S. religious groups and the Government.

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 law provides that the Secretary of State, with the assistance of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, shall transmit to Congress "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." This Annual Report includes 195 reports on countries worldwide. The 2002 Report covers the period from July 1, 2001, to June 30, 2002.

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