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

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 are some restrictions at the local level in certain 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 Federal Government continued to strengthen efforts to promote interfaith understanding and dialogue, and to mediate cases of religious intolerance.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, in certain southern areas, 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 as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 1,220,663 square miles, and its population is approximately 98 million.

According to the 2000 census, approximately 88 percent of respondents identify themselves as at least nominally Roman Catholic. 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 groups for which the 2000 census provided estimates include: Pentecostal and Neopentecostal evangelicals, 1.62 percent of the population; other Protestant evangelical groups, 2.87 percent; members of Jehovah's Witnesses, 1.25 percent; "historical" Protestants, 0.71 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 0.58 percent; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 0.25 percent; Jews, 0.05 percent; and other religions, 0.31 percent. Approximately 3.53 percent of respondents indicated "no religion," and 0.85 percent did not specify a religion.

There are no definitive estimates on membership in various Protestant denominations. A 2000 press report indicated that Presbyterians account for 1 percent of the total population; Anglicans, 0.1 percent; Baptists, 0.1 percent; Methodists, 0.04 percent; and Lutherans, 0.01 percent. Official figures sometimes differed from membership claims of religious groups. For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church claims a nationwide membership of 600,000 to 700,000 persons; however, according to the 2000 census, only 488,945 persons identified themselves as such. Some Protestant evangelical groups claim that their coreligionists constitute close to 60 percent of the population in Chiapas; however, in the 2000 census, only 21.9 percent of respondents in that state identified themselves as Protestant. Press reports have estimated that there are more than 5,000 Protestant churches and 7,000 pastors in the country.

Non-Catholic Christians are concentrated primarily in the south. Chiapas, with a large indigenous population and overall approximately 4 percent of the country's population, has the largest percentage of non-Catholics, 36.2 percent, compared to the national average estimated at 12 percent. Non-Catholics represent 29.6 percent of the population of Tabasco state, followed by Campeche state with 28.7 percent, and Quintana Roo state with 26.8 percent.

There is a small Muslim population in the city of Torreon, Coahuila, and there are an estimated 300 Muslims in the San Cristobal de las Casas area in Chiapas. This group is composed of Mayan indigenous people who have been converted through the Mission for Dawa in Mexico, an Islamic sect recently founded by Spanish missionaries.

In early 2002, a Roman Catholic Church official in Chiapas told the press that an estimated 12 percent of that state's residents identified themselves as "non-believers," 64 percent as Roman Catholic, and 22 percent as Protestant evangelical. In indigenous communities in Chiapas, the number of Catholics is even lower. A December 2001 article reported that in the Chol area, 56.3 percent identify themselves as Roman Catholic, in the Tzeltal, 54.7 percent, and in the Tzotzil, 51.9 percent.

Some indigenous people 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 politics and religion. A small number of local leaders often are reported to manipulate religious tensions in their communities for their own political or economic benefit, especially in Chiapas (see Sections II and III).

According to news reports in 2000, an estimated 55 percent of those surveyed attend religious ceremonies at least weekly; 19 percent, monthly; and 20 percent, less than once a month.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Federal Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions. State and municipal governments generally protect this right, but 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 its ceremonies and acts of worship. 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. In August 2001, a provision was added to the Constitution that establishes, for the first time, a prohibition against any form of discrimination, including discrimination against persons on the basis of religion.

To operate legally, religious associations must register with the Director for Religious Affairs of the Federal Secretariat of Government (DAR). The registration process is routine. The most recent statistics show that 6,247 religious associations are registered, of which the vast majority are evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic. During the period covered by this report, the DAR registered 215 associations, some of which had applied for registration previously. In addition 142 applications either awaited further supporting documentation or were not in compliance with registration criteria at the end of the period covered by this report.

To be registered as a religious association, a group must articulate its fundamental doctrines and religious beliefs, not be organized primarily for profit, and not promote acts that are 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 DAR promotes religious tolerance and investigates cases of religious intolerance. All religious associations have equal access to the DAR for registering complaints. Its officials generally are responsive and helpful in mediating disputes among religious communities. When parties present a religious dispute to the DAR, it attempts to mediate a solution. If mediation fails, the parties may submit the problem to the DAR for binding arbitration. If the parties do not agree to this procedure, one or the other may elect to seek judicial redress. Municipal and state officials generally are responsive and helpful in mediating disputes among communities. However, when a mediated solution cannot be found, officials have not always been aggressive in pursuing legal remedies against offending local leaders (see Section III).

Five states, Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Veracruz, and Mexico State, have their own under secretaries for religious affairs. The new governor of Nuevo Leon has expanded the position of Under Secretary for Citizens' Services to include Religious Affairs as part of the Under Secretary's portfolio.

Historically, tensions existed between the Roman Catholic Church and the post-1910 modern state. Consequently, severe restrictions on the rights of the Church and members of the clergy were written into the country's Constitution. In 1992 the Government reestablished diplomatic relations with the Holy See and lifted almost all restrictions on the Catholic Church. This later 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. The Constitution still bars members of the clergy from holding public office, advocating partisan political views, supporting political candidates, or opposing the laws or institutions of the State.

The Constitution provides that education should avoid privileges of religion, and that one religion or its members may not be given preference in education over another. Religious instruction is prohibited in public schools; however, religious associations are free to maintain private schools, which receive no public funds. Primary level home schooling for religious reasons is not prohibited explicitly nor supported by the law; however, to enter a secondary school, one must have attended an accredited primary school. Home schooling is allowed at the secondary level once schooling at an accredited primary school has been completed.

Religious associations must notify the Government of their intent to hold a religious meeting outside of a licensed place of worship. The Government received 4,442 such notifications from June 2003 through May 31.

The Government requires religious groups to apply for a permit to construct new buildings or to convert existing buildings into houses of worship. The latest statistics available show that the Government granted permits for 972 buildings between June 1, 2003 and May 31. For 432 pending applications, the Government has requested additional information pertaining to the structure or to its proposed use. Religious groups report no difficulty in obtaining government permission for these activities.

Since 2001 the Secretary of Government has engaged in dialogue with representatives of various religions and denominations to discuss issues of mutual concern.

Missionaries representing a wide variety of groups are present. Although the Federal Government limits the number of visas each religious group is allowed, the application procedure is routine and uncomplicated. The Government has granted 49,466 such visas since 1995, including 5,526 between June 1, 2003 and April 30.

Of nine official holidays, two are associated with Christian holy days (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.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In mid-2003 representatives of the political party Mexico Possible brought complaints against the bishops of Tlaxcala, Acapulco and Cuernavaca for violating article 130 of the Constitution and article 404 of the Penal Code. Both articles state that religious ministers cannot call for their followers to vote for or against a political party. While the bishops did not call for voting specifically against Mexico Possible, they did say that it was a sin to vote in favor of candidates who favor explicitly providing equal rights for homosexuals or to legalize abortion, both of which were positions that the (now-defunct) party endorsed. In August 2003, the Secretary of Government indicated that the bishops had not violated the Religious Associations and Public Worship Law.

According to the Religious Associations and Public Worship Law, religious groups 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 commercial broadcast radio or television, and permission is granted routinely. Between June 2003 and May 31, authorities approved 11,116 transmissions.

Any religious building constructed after 1992 is the property of the religious association that built it. All religious buildings erected before that year are "national patrimony" and owned by the State. There were reportedly 90,879 buildings dedicated to religious activities as of July 2001. Of those, 80,846 were the property of the State and 10,033 belonged to religious groups.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

While the Federal Government generally respects religious freedom in practice, poor enforcement mechanisms have allowed local authorities in Chiapas to discriminate against persons based on their religious beliefs. Federal and local governments often failed to punish those responsible for acts of religiously motivated violence. In parts of Chiapas, leaders of indigenous communities sometimes regard evangelical groups and Catholic lay catechists as unwelcome outside influences and as potential economic and political threats. As a result, these leaders sometimes acquiesced in or ordered the harassment or expulsion of individuals belonging chiefly to Protestant evangelical groups; between June 2003 and May 31, the Office of Religious Affairs in the Interior Ministry received 14 complaints of such harassment (see Section III). Religious differences often were a prominent feature of such incidents; however, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power were frequently the underlying causes. In past years, expulsions involved burning of homes and crops, beatings, and, occasionally, killings. During the period covered by this report, there were at least two persons killed in incidents that had a religious dimension. These incidents usually occurred in predominantly Catholic-Mayan communities, and they mostly involved Catholics harassing or abusing evangelicals or other Protestants. On several occasions, village officials imposed sanctions on evangelicals for resisting participation in community festivals or refusing to work on Saturdays.

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. Some of these people were displaced at least partly on religious grounds. A representative from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) reported that there are no official statistics on the displaced. However, the Diagnostic on Human Rights in Mexico, published in October 2003 by the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited religious conflict as one of the principal reasons for internal displacement in Chiapas.

A mob that included local officials linked to the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), armed with sticks, stones and machetes, drove seven Protestant families from their homes on June 22 because they asked local officials to ensure that their freedom of worship be respected. The families joined approximately 300 to 400 Tojolabal Christians expelled from their farms in Las Margaritas Township in the previous 10 months. Another attack warning was issued by the Nuevo Matzan village council, which ordered 15 evangelical families to abandon their homes or face severe consequences. Government officials in Chiapas have taken no action, claiming that the families left of their own volition (see Section III).

According to the CNDH, from June 1991 to March 2003, it received 1,110 complaints of discrimination on religious grounds, especially from members of Jehovah's Witnesses, for their refusal to participate in national anthem and flag ceremonies in schools.

In February 2003, the CNDH called on the Governor of Michoacan to reinstate seven student members of Jehovah's Witnesses who were expelled from school in 2001 for such a refusal. As of May, the recommendation had been fulfilled partially.

In November 2003, the Federal Government published regulations under the 1992 Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship. Changes include opening prisons and health institutions to people who administer "spiritual help."

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.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were cases of religious intolerance and expulsions from certain indigenous communities. This is particularly common in Chiapas, where many residents follow syncretistic (Catholic-Mayan) religious practices. 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 not only as different and strange, but also as threats to indigenous culture. In some southern indigenous communities, abandoning syncretistic practices for Protestant beliefs is perceived as a threat to the community's unique identity. Endemic poverty, land tenure disputes, and lack of educational opportunities also contribute to tensions in many communities, which at times results in violence.

The most common incidents of intolerance related to traditional community celebrations. Protestant evangelicals often resist making financial donations demanded by community norms that go partly to local celebrations of Catholic religious holidays, and they resist participating in festivals involving alcohol. News reports estimate that 10,000 evangelical Christians live in segregated areas surrounding San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas.

In October 2003, heavily armed assailants stopped the automobile of Mariano Diaz Mendez, an evangelical Christian pastor, and killed him near the town of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas. He was the second evangelical Christian to be killed in the space of two weeks; Jairo Solis Lopez, another pastor, was killed earlier in the Chiapas municipality of Mapastepec. There was no information on investigations or arrests related to these killings.

In Chiapas traditionalist local leaders have denied approximately 150 children access to the local public schools in six indigenous communities every year since 1994 because they are evangelicals. They receive instruction in separate classrooms under a program that began in 2001 to provide education for children who are marginalized due to their religious affiliation.

In Guerrero 17 families of Jehovah's Witnesses, a total of 70 persons, were threatened by local authorities with eviction from their homes and the loss of inherited properties because they refused to contribute to Catholic religious festivals or to assume responsibilities that violated their conscience, such as becoming members of the local police. In November 2003, the two conflicting parties reached an agreement under which the Jehovah's Witnesses agreed to assume civic, community, and economic "obligations."

Several persons accused of being witches have been killed in Chiapas during the last decade.

In October 2003, the Director General for Clerical Affairs at the DAR estimated that nationwide there are at least 100 confrontations developing due to religious intolerance, primarily in the south. Government officials, the national human rights ombudsman, and interfaith groups are conducting discussions about incidents of intolerance to promote social peace. An Interfaith Council includes representatives from the Anglican, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Lutheran, other Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh Dharma, and Sufi Islam communities.

The Jewish community in the country has not encountered violence, harassment, or vandalism. There are occasional protests due to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, but the Government acts quickly and proactively to offer protection. In 2003 both houses of the Congress unanimously passed the Federal Law for Preventing and Eliminating Discrimination. The fourth article of the law explicitly mentions anti-Semitism as a form of discrimination.

In March the head of CNDH criticized harassment of indigenous people who have converted to Islam, primarily in the area of San Cristobal in Chiapas; he attributed the harassment in part to reaction to increased Muslim proselytizing. CNDH initiated an investigation after receiving complaints that federal authorities discriminated against followers of Islam.

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. U.S. Embassy staff met with government officials, staff of nongovernmental organizations, and members of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom.


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