International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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.

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

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 land area of approximately 425,000 square miles, and its population is estimated at 8.27 million.

According to a November 2001 survey conducted by the National Statistical Institute, the majority of the population, 78 percent, express affiliation to the Roman Catholic Church (a decrease of 2 percent over the last 10 years). Protestant denominations account for between 16 and 19 percent of the population. Catholic affiliation 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. Less than 0.2 percent expressed affiliation to other faiths including Islam, the Baha'i Faith, Judaism, and Buddhism. There are 280 non-Catholic faith-based organizations and more than 200 Catholic organizations registered in the country.

Between 50 and 60 percent of the population identifies itself as indigenous, from Aymara (est. 1.5 million), Quechua (2.4 million), Guarani (77,000), Chiquitano (63,000), or 1 of 20 other smaller groups. The percentage of the population identifying themselves as indigenous is higher in rural areas, and the Roman Catholic Church tends to be weaker in these parts of the country due to both a lack of resources and indigenous cultural resistance. For many individuals, identification with Roman Catholicism coexists with an attachment to traditional beliefs and rituals, with a focus on the "Pachamama" or "Mother Earth" figure, as well as on "Akeko," originally an 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 Christian religion. During the second-half of 2001 and the first 4 months of 2002, the Government registered 11 new religious associations.

There is a Mormon temple/center in Cochabamba serving more than 100,000 Mormons in the country. There is also a small Jewish community with a synagogue in La Paz, and a few Muslims and a mosque in the eastern city of Santa Cruz. Korean immigrants have their own church in La Paz. The majority of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants have settled in the city of Santa Cruz. There is a university in the city founded by Korean immigrants, which has evangelical/Presbyterian ties. There are Buddhist and Shinto communities, as well as a considerable Baha'i community spread throughout the country.

Missionary groups include Mennonites, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and many evangelical groups.

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 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 stipends from the State), in part to compensate the Church for properties expropriated by governments 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) governing the relationships between religious organizations and the Government, which then entered into force, replacing 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 dialog in church-state relations. The 2000 decree requires groups to consult civil authorities to address concerns, such as traffic, before conducting public gatherings such as outdoor celebrations. The 2000 decree also requires that the fundraising reports of religions be certified by a notary public. This requirement was designed to protect churches against allegations of money laundering or receiving money from drug funds.

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 seek out or restrict gatherings of nonregistered religious groups; however, registration is essential for 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 officially pending applications that require 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 applicants had not responded to additional legal requirements or communications from the Ministry for a period of at least 6 months.

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 a judicial standing similar to the standing of nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) and to have tax-free status. Fourteen religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have such framework agreements with the Government.

Only Catholic religious instruction is provided in public schools. By law it is optional, and is described as such in curricular materials; however, students face strong peer pressure to participate. Non-Catholic instruction is not yet 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

The Government denied religious registration to Hari Krishna in the 1980's, on the grounds of what the Government describes as nonfaith-related activities of the group. Individuals listed as Hari Krishna leaders in the 1980's continue to operate a legally registered educational organization.

The Government does not take a particularly active role to promote interfaith understanding, although it is represented at interfaith meetings. The Government works with both Catholic and Protestant religious 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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the country's diverse religious communities are amicable, and ecumenical dialog between them continues. In 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 dialog in the country. As a demonstration of improving Catholic-Protestant relations, a nationwide meeting of Catholics and Protestants was held in May 2000. Catholic-Protestant meetings at the departmental (state) and national level have continued; there was a national meeting in May 2002. In addition, the churches are encouraging interfaith dialog at the grass-roots level between their members.

The Catholics and Methodists of Cochabamba have collaborated on publications and vigils, and following the Vatican's lead, Catholics and Lutherans in the country 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 against it by a minority of private citizens in the fall of 2001.

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 and as an independent issue. The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers meet regularly with religious authorities, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship, principal religious leaders, and the Papal Nuncio.

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