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

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. However, there were some efforts by the Government, motivated by the current political crisis, to limit the influence of churches in certain social and political areas.

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 352,144 square miles, and its population is approximately 24.5 million. According to government estimates, 70 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 29 percent is Protestant, and the remaining 1 percent practices other religions or is atheist. The Venezuelan Evangelical Council estimates that Protestants are 9 percent of the population, or less than 2 million persons. There are small but influential Muslim and Jewish communities. The capital, Caracas, has a large mosque, and the country's Jewish community is very active. According to the Government, Protestant churches are the most rapidly growing religious groups in the country.

There are an estimated 4,000 foreign missionaries. They require special visas to enter the country. Missionaries generally are not refused entry, but many complain that the process of obtaining a visa often takes months or years due to bureaucratic inefficiency.

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 maintains a registry of religious groups, disburses funds to the Roman Catholic Church, and promotes awareness and understanding among religious communities. Each group must register with the DJR to have legal status as a religious organization and to own property. Requirements for registration are largely administrative; however, some groups have complained that the process is slow and inefficient. No religious group has been refused registration by the DJR.

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 the basis for government subsidies to the Church. Government officials stress that all registered religious groups are eligible for funding to support religious services, but most money goes to Catholic organizations because their assigned shares are fixed, and the budget is limited to $350,000 (700 million bolivars). Seven Protestant groups are scheduled to receive a total of $10,500 (21 million bolivars) to be disbursed mid-year, and for the first time, the syncretic Maria Lionza movement, a popular cult blending African, indigenous, and Christian beliefs, will receive $5,000 (10 million bolivars) in funding.

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

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The Constitution forbids the use of religion to avoid obeying the law or to interfere with the rights of others. However, there were some efforts by Government, motivated by the current political crisis, to limit the influence of Catholic churches in certain social and political areas.

The Government annually provides about $600,000 (1.2 billion bolivars) in subsidies to Catholic schools and social programs that help the poor. Other religious groups are free to establish and run their own schools; however, the only official subsidies that these schools receive are in the form of building repairs.

The military chaplain corps is comprised exclusively of Roman Catholic priests. Although service members of other religious groups are allowed to attend services of their faith, they do not have the same access to clergy members that Catholic service members enjoy.

In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations are not part of "civil society" and therefore may not represent citizens in court nor bring their own legal actions. Although the Catholic Church expressed concern with the ruling, the decision has had no effect on the conduct of Church activities.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Catholic bishops and government officials, including President Chavez, engaged in several disputes that mirrored the general political conflict. During the period covered by this report, several senior government officials launched personal attacks against Catholic Church leaders and made numerous public statements intended to intimidate and threaten the church. In April President Chavez denounced the country's Catholic Church leadership as "immoral liars" who were "equal to Judas." In December 2003, there were acts of vandalism against religious statues in Caracas and Falcon state, and a church was attacked twice in a town outside Caracas. In September 2003, police raided a church in Barquisimeto, allegedly looking for explosives. Church leaders called these acts attempts to threaten the Church for its political stance against the Government, while government leaders accused the Church of staging the incidents. These cases were still under investigation at the end of the period covered by this report.

In May the Archbishop of Merida accused the Government of seeking to destroy the Catholic Church's credibility by manufacturing scandals aimed at priests and bishops. He described a series of attacks on churches, cathedrals, and priests' houses, whose apparent goal was to create fear rather than steal objects of value. Prior to at least one attack, police presence had been withdrawn after authorities allegedly claimed it was a privilege the Catholic Church should not enjoy. The Archbishop believes the Government wishes to diminish the Church or any institution perceived as a competitor. There have been no official investigations into these allegations.

In a June 2003 speech to the Organization of American States General Assembly, Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton sought to historically link Christianity with ethnic persecution, slavery, and mass murder.

During the period covered by this report, statements from senior government officials supporting Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremist movements raised tensions and intimidated the country's Jewish community. In April the office of Vice President Rangel released a press statement referring to the owners of a business involved in a labor dispute as being "of Jewish nationality," although they were citizens of the country. Also in April, a U.S. Embassy officer found a violently anti-Semitic and anti-American leaflet in an Interior and Justice Ministry office waiting room. The source of the pamphlet was not determined, but it was believed to have been downloaded from an Internet Web page and apparently printed by pro-Chavez groups.

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. However, in February 2003, the Israeli Association of Venezuela photographed graffiti on a Caracas synagogue that labeled the members of the Jewish community as fascists and murderers of the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples. The Government did not investigate the incident. In January the U.S. Embassy received an e-mail threatening North Americans and Jews in the country.

On May 27, small explosive devices went off near two Mormon churches, one in Valencia and the other in San Cristobal. Damages were slight, and there were no injuries. Anti-U.S. and anti-Mormon propaganda pamphlets were found at each site.

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. Embassy maintains close contact with 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.


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