U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2004 - Bolivia

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 15, 2004, covers the period from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. Roman Catholicism is the official religion.

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. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 424,164 square miles, and its population is estimated at 8.27 million. According to a 2001 survey conducted by the National Statistical Institute, 78 percent of the population is Roman Catholic (a decrease of 2 percent over the preceding 10 years). Protestant denominations account for 16 to 19 percent of the population. Catholic membership is higher in urban than in rural areas, while Protestant affiliation is highest (approximately 20 percent) in the countryside. Approximately 2.5 percent of the population indicated no religious affiliation, and less than 0.2 percent claimed affiliation with other faiths, including Islam, the Baha'i faith, Judaism, Buddhism, and Shinto. There are 280 non-Catholic faith-based organizations and more than 200 Catholic groups registered by the Government. The majority of non-Catholic groups, which includes Mennonites, Mormons, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and several evangelical groups, also has a foreign missionary presence.

Between 50 and 60 percent of the population identifies itself as indigenous, belonging to Aymara (estimated at 1.5 million), Quechua (2.4 million), Guarani (77,000), Chiquitano (63,000), or 1 of 20 smaller groups. The indigenous population is higher in rural areas, where the Roman Catholic Church tends to be weaker due to a lack of resources and to indigenous cultural resistance. For many individuals, identification with Roman Catholicism coexists with attachment to traditional beliefs and rituals, with a focus on the Pachamama or Mother Earth figure, as well as on Akeko, a traditional indigenous god of luck, harvests, and general abundance, whose festival is celebrated widely on January 24. Some indigenous leaders have sought to discard all forms of Christianity; however, this effort has not led to a significant increase in the number of "indigenous-belief only" worshippers. During the second half of 2001 and the first 4 months of 2002, the Government registered 11 new religious associations.

There is a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) temple and center in Cochabamba; Mormon sources estimate the number of their adherents in the country at more than 100,000. There is also a small Jewish community with a synagogue in La Paz. Muslims have cultural centers that also serve as mosques in La Paz, and Shi'ite and Sunni mosques are found in the eastern city of Santa Cruz and a smaller mosque is located in Cochabamba. Korean immigrants have their own church in La Paz. The majority of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants has settled in Santa Cruz. There is a university in the city founded by Korean immigrants, which has evangelical and Presbyterian ties. There are Buddhist and Shinto communities, as well as a substantial Baha'i community throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. Roman Catholicism predominates, and the Constitution recognizes it as the official religion. The Roman Catholic Church receives support from the State (approximately 300 priests receive small government stipends), in part to compensate the Church for properties expropriated in the past. The Catholic Church exercises a limited degree of political influence through the Bolivian Bishops' Conference.

In July 2000, then-President Hugo Banzer Suarez signed a Supreme Decree (similar to an executive order) defining the relationships between religious organizations and the Government, which immediately entered into force. It replaced a 1985 decree that had been the subject of criticism by Catholic and non-Catholic churches. The 2000 decree reflects input from the churches, and, according to the Government, was designed to increase transparency and dialogue in Church-State relations. It requires groups to consult civil authorities in order to address potential concerns, such as traffic, before conducting public gatherings such as outdoor celebrations. It also requires that a notary public certify fundraising reports for religious groups. This requirement was designed to protect churches against allegations of money laundering or of receiving money from drug sources.

Non-Catholic religious organizations, including missionary groups, must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship and receive authorization ("personeria juridica") for legal religious representation. The Government is not known to restrict gatherings of nonregistered religious groups; however, registration is essential to obtain tax, customs, and other legal benefits. The ministry may not deny legal recognition to any organization based on its articles of faith; however, the procedure typically requires legal assistance and can be time-consuming. The process has led to the abandonment of a number of pending applications that required further legal revision. During 2001 and the first half of 2002, the Government did not reject any applications; however, it considered 69 previously pending applications to have expired because the applicants had not met additional legal requirements or had not responded to communications from the ministry for 6 months or longer. Religious groups receiving funds from abroad may enter into a framework agreement ("convenio marco") with the Government, lasting 3 years, which permits them to enjoy judicial standing similar to that of other nongovernmental organizations, and to have tax-free status. Fourteen religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have done so.

Only Catholic religious instruction is provided in public schools. By law it is optional, and it is described as such in curricular materials; however, students face strong peer pressure to participate. Non-Catholic instruction is not available in public schools for students of other faiths; the Government continues to develop an alternate course on "ethics."

The Constitution prohibits discrimination in employment based on religion, and it does not appear to be common.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government denied religious registration to Hari Krishna in the 1980s, on the grounds of what the Government described as non-faith-related activities. Hari Krishna leaders continue to operate a legally registered educational organization.

The Government does not take a very active role in promoting interfaith understanding, although it is represented at interfaith meetings. It works with both Catholic and Protestant organizations on social and health programs. If the President attends Mass as part of his official functions, it is traditional for all Cabinet members, regardless of their faiths, to accompany him.

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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom, and ecumenical dialogue between various religious groups continues. In June 1999, the Catholic Church announced that it would no longer call neo-Pentecostal and evangelical churches "sects," which increasingly has been viewed as a pejorative term, but would call them instead "religious organizations." In 1999 Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders initiated an interfaith dialogue. As a demonstration of improving Catholic-Protestant relations, a nationwide meeting of Catholics and Protestants was held in 2000 and again in 2002. Catholic-Protestant meetings at the departmental (state) and national level have continued. In addition the churches encouraged interfaith dialogue at the grass-roots level among their members.

Catholics and Methodists in Cochabamba have collaborated on publications and vigils and, following the Vatican's lead, Catholics and Lutherans in the country now recognize each other's rituals of baptism.

There are no serious rivalries between religious groups, although there were reports of some resentment of missionary groups by Roman Catholics. The country's small Muslim community complained to the Government of discrimination by a minority of citizens in the fall of 2001.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met regularly with religious authorities, including with officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship, with principal religious leaders and with the Papal Nuncio.


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.