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

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. There is no state religion; however, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Paramilitaries occasionally targeted representatives and members of religious organizations. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) regularly targeted religious leaders and practitioners, killing, kidnapping, extorting, and inhibiting free religious expression. Illegal armed groups generally targeted religious leaders and practitioners for political, rather than religious, reasons; guerrillas committed the vast majority of these abuses.

Relations between the various faiths generally are amicable, although some indigenous leaders reportedly were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

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 751,680 square miles, and its estimated population is 43,834,000. Although the Government does not keep official statistics on religious affiliation, a 2001 poll commissioned by the country's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, indicated that the country's population is 81 percent Roman Catholic. Of the remaining respondents, 10 percent identified themselves as "Christians" and 3.5 percent as "evangelicals." Another 1.9 percent professed no religious beliefs. According to data provided by their respective national headquarters, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) have 180,000, 130,000, and 110,000 members, respectively, totaling approximately 1 percent of the population. Other religious faiths and movements with a significant number of adherents in Colombia include Judaism, Islam, animism, and various syncretistic belief systems. An estimated 60 percent of respondents to the El Tiempo poll reported that they do not practice their faith actively.

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 residing in the western department of Choco. Jews are concentrated in major cities, Muslims on the Caribbean coast, and adherents of indigenous animistic religions in remote, rural areas.

Jewish leaders estimate that as many as one-third of the country's small Jewish community had fled the country by the end of 2000. The principal causes of emigration included concerns about the growing numbers of murders, assaults, and kidnapings of Jewish business leaders, as well as economic problems caused by the country's recession.

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. The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The law states that there is no official 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, which was the country's official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution. A 1973 concordat between the Vatican and the Government remains in effect, although some of its articles are now unenforceable because of constitutional provisions on freedom of religion. A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.

The Government extends two different kinds of recognition to religious organizations: Recognition of the church as a legal entity (personeria juridica) and special public recognition. The Ministry of Interior readily grants the former recognition; its only legal requirements are submission of a formal request and elementary organizational information. In addition, any foreign religious faith that wishes to establish a presence in the country must document official recognition by authorities in its home country. The Ministry of Interior may reject requests that do not comply fully with established requirements or that violate fundamental constitutional rights.

Accession to a 1997 public law agreement between the State and non-Roman Catholic religions is required for such organizations to minister to their adherents through public institutions such as hospitals or prisons or to perform marriages recognized by the State. When deciding whether to grant accession to the 1997 agreement, the Government considers a religion's total membership, its degree of popular acceptance within society, and other relevant factors, such as the content of the organization's statutes and its required behavioral norms. As of the end of the period covered by this report, 12 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches had received this special status. No non-Christian religion is a signatory to the 1997 public law agreement. Many churches that are signatories to the agreement report that some local authorities have failed to comply with the accord. The Ministry of Interior has stated that it corrects local authorities when complaints of noncompliance are received. More than 40 churches have requested a new public law agreement that would have less exacting standards for recognition than the 1997 agreement. No progress was 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 special religious recognition.

The Ministry of Foreign Relations issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious administrators of denominations that have received special public recognition. Foreign missionaries are required to possess a special visa that is valid for a maximum of 2 years. Applicants must have a certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior confirming that the religion is registered with the Ministry, a certificate issued by the religious institution itself confirming the applicant's membership 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.

The Constitution recognizes parents' right to choose the type of education their children receive, including religious instruction. It also states that no student shall be forced to receive religious education in public schools. However, the Roman Catholic Church and religious groups that have acceded to the 1997 public law agreement may provide religious instruction in public schools to students who wish to receive it. Religions without special recognition may establish parochial schools, provided that 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 in rural areas that have no state-run schools. These schools are also tax exempt.

In April 2001, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSJ) ruled that the Colombian Institute of Higher Education, which administers the country's college aptitude examination, must provide alternate examination dates for evangelicals whose beliefs preclude them from taking examinations on Sunday. In May 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that university instructors may not force students to reveal their religious beliefs or require them to take courses that might obligate them to do so.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Although the 1991 Constitution mandated the separation of church and state, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status. Participation in the 1997 agreement is required for non-Catholic groups to minister to soldiers, public hospital patients, and prisoners, and to provide religious instruction in public schools. The State only recognizes marriages celebrated by non-Roman Catholic churches that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. A total of 12 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches have received this special status. Some signatories to the public law agreement have complained of discrimination at the local level, such as refusals by municipal authorities to recognize marriages performed by these churches. However, the Ministry of Interior states that it corrects local authorities when it receives such complaints.

All legally recognized churches, seminaries, monasteries, and convents are exempt from national and local taxes. Local governments also may exempt 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. According to the Christian Union Movement (MUC), an association of non-Catholic Christian churches, only 10 municipalities exempt non-Catholic churches from taxes.

Due to threats from paramilitaries or, more frequently, guerrillas, many religious authorities were forced to refrain from publicly discussing the country's internal conflict. Illegal armed groups, especially the FARC, threatened or attacked religious officials for opposing the recruitment of minors, promoting human rights, assisting internally displaced persons, and discouraging coca cultivation. The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church also reported that paramilitaries and guerrillas issued death threats against rural priests who spoke out against them.

The FARC placed religious restrictions on persons living in its safe haven, or "despeje," that was granted by the Government in 1998 to facilitate peace negotiations. The despeje was abolished when peace talks broke off in February 2002. During the period covered by this report, the FARC continued to compel Roman Catholic and evangelical churches to pay "war taxes" levied in the former despeje and other regions under effective FARC control.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

There is no evidence that the 2000 killings of 14 persons, including 2 evangelical pastors, for which several marines were arrested, were religiously motivated. There is no evidence that the 1998 kidnaping and 1999 murder of Jewish business leader Benjamin Khoudari, for which an army colonel and an army sergeant remain on trial, was religiously motivated.

Illegal armed groups generally targeted religious leaders and practitioners for political, rather than religious, reasons. Paramilitaries occasionally targeted representatives and members of religious organizations. Guerrilla groups were responsible for the vast majority of such attacks and threats; the FARC and ELN regularly targeted religious leaders and practitioners, killing, kidnaping, extorting, and inhibiting free religious expression. The Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor General's Office reported that it is investigating 42 crimes believed to have been religiously motivated.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that illegal armed groups killed 25 Catholic priests (including a bishop and an archbishop) between 1987 and mid-2002. Nearly all of the killings were attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC. According to the Christian Union Movement (MUC), more than 77 Protestant pastors have been murdered in the last 2 1/2 years, including 14 killings between June and August 2002. Most of the latest killings occurred in the southwestern department of Caqueta, a largely rural department dominated by the FARC. The FARC is believed to be responsible for 90 percent of the murders of Protestant pastors.

A suspect believed to be a member of the FARC was arrested and charged with the April 6, 2002, murder of Roman Catholic priest Juan Ramon Nunez in the town of La Argentina, department of Huila. Nunez was shot and killed as he distributed communion in the parish church.

On May 3, 2002, FARC forces engaged in combat with paramilitaries inaccurately fired gas cylinder bombs at the town of Bojaya, Choco department. One of the projectiles struck the town's main church, killing 119 civilians who had gathered inside for protection. There is no evidence that the church was targeted intentionally or that the assault was religiously motivated.

Unknown perpetrators killed a number of religious leaders.

For example, in January 2002, Roman Catholic priest Arley Arias Garcia, head of a local peace commission, was killed along with two assistants by members of an illegal armed group outside the town of Samana, in the department of Caldas. Investigating authorities have reached no firm conclusions regarding who was responsible for the killings, and have made no arrests.

On January 12, 2002, Father Guillermo Leon Corrales, a Roman Catholic priest living in the United States who was visiting his family in Medellin, was murdered in the town of La Estrella, department of Antioquia. Several years earlier Corrales had been threatened by members of a radical student organization at the Medellin high school where he taught. The Government's investigation of the case was ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.

On March 16, 2002, Isaias Duarte Cancino, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cali, was killed as he left a church in Cali's Aguablanca neighborhood. Duarte, an outspoken critic of illegal armed groups and narcotrafficking, publicly had accused drug traffickers of underwriting several unnamed congressional campaigns. Police investigators suspect narcotraffickers of contracting the three hired killers who were under arrest for Duarte's murder, although some observers continue to speculate that the FARC was responsible for the crime. The investigation of Duarte's murder remains a high priority for law enforcement officials.

On June 27, 2002, hooded gunmen killed Roman Catholic priest Jose Hilario Arango, after he celebrated Mass in Cali. Police killed one of the gunman in a firefight following the murder. A second gunman remains at large. Arango was a strong critic of the FARC, which is suspected of his murder. The Government was investigating the case at the end of the period covered by this report.

On March 6, 2002, a suspect was sentenced to a 31-year prison term for the 1999 murders of Roman Catholic priest Jorge Luis Maza and Spanish aid worker Inigo Egiluz in the department of Choco. Nine alleged members of a paramilitary group arrested in connection with this crime subsequently were released for lack of evidence.

Religious leaders and practitioners were the targets of kidnaping, primarily by guerrilla groups.

On April 16, 2002, the AUC kidnaped seven Roman Catholic missionaries near the town of Santa Rosa, department of Bolivar. They were released the following day after convincing their captors that their mission was pastoral, rather than political. The Government's investigation of the case was ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.

A preliminary investigation continues into the April 2002 kidnaping by the ELN of Roman Catholic priests Saulo Carreno and Teodoro Gonzalez near Saravena, department of Arauca. At the time, the two priests were accompanying the mayor of Saravena and other local government officials on a humanitarian mission. They were released a week later.

On April 28, 2002, the ELN kidnaped evangelical pastor Juan Carlos Villegas near the village of Aguas Frias, department of Antioquia. He was released 2 weeks later. The Government's investigation of the case was ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.

In August 2001, the FARC released kidnaped evangelical pastor and radio network president Enrique Gomez.

The FARC has failed to account for the fate of three American missionaries from the New Tribes Mission kidnaped by FARC guerrillas across the Panamanian border in January 1993. The three men are presumed dead.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that 57 Catholic churches in 8 different departments had been seriously damaged or destroyed in the last decade, including 9 churches in the past 2 years. Roman Catholic churches generally are not attacked intentionally, but often are affected by guerrilla attacks on police stations and mayors' offices located near churches.

According to the MUC, as of August 2002, the FARC had forced the closures of more than 450 evangelical churches in the departments of Meta, Guajira, Tolima, Vaupes, Guainia, Guaviare, Vichada, Casanare, and Arauca. The FARC also extorted or forced the closure of rural evangelical schools. The MUC reported an overall increase in the number of kidnapings and extortions. Guerrillas continued to attack rural evangelical Christians and their churches, in the belief that the churches were fronts for U.S. Government activities. Mormon church leaders and facilities remained under threat for the same reason.

Some indigenous groups that practice animistic or syncretistic religions are harassed by guerrillas or paramilitaries. However, such harassment generally appears motivated by political or economic differences (whether real or perceived) or by questions of land ownership, rather than by religious concerns.

A small Taoist commune exists in a mountainous rural region of Santander department. Through its website, the community has asserted that it is harassed by government security forces. Government officials claim to have received reports that the commune holds residents there against their will. The number of residents of the commune is unknown, although it is accepted widely that many are foreigners. The community's insularity and isolation in a region with a significant guerrilla presence makes it difficult to gather accurate information on it.

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

A number of faith-based nongovernmental organizations promote human rights, social and economic development, and a negotiated settlement to the country's armed conflict. The most influential of these organizations either are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church or were founded by Church officials. The Church continues to be the only institutional presence in many rural areas, and conducts important social work through its Social Pastoral Agency.

Section IV. 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 context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

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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