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; however, there are some restrictions at the local level.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The Government continued to strengthen efforts to promote interfaith understanding and dialog, and to mediate cases of religious intolerance.

A generally amicable relationship among the various religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, in some parts of southern Mexico, 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 in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 1,220,663 square miles, and its population is approximately 97.48 million.

According to the 2000 census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Computation (INEGI), approximately 87.99 percent of the respondents identified themselves at least nominally as 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 categories enumerated in the 2000 census are: Pentecostal and Neopentecostal evangelicals at approximately 1.62 percent; other Protestant Evangelical groups, approximately 2.87 percent; members of Jehovah's Witnesses, approximately 1.25 percent; "historical" Protestants, approximately 0.71 percent; Seventh-Day Adventists, approximately 0.58 percent; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), approximately 0.25 percent; Jewish, approximately 0.05 percent; and other religions, approximately 0.31 percent. Press reports have estimated that there are more than 5,000 Protestant churches and 7,000 pastors.

There is no single definitive source on the size of each Protestant denomination. A January 2000 press report indicated that Presbyterians account for 1 percent of the total population; Anglicans, 0.1 percent; Baptists, 0.1 percent; Lutherans, 0.01 percent; and Methodists, 0.04 percent. Official figures sometimes differed from the membership numbers offered by 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. Likewise, some Protestant evangelical groups claim that their coreligionists constitute close to 60 percent of the population in Chiapas state; however, according to the 2000 census, only 21.9 percent of respondents in Chiapas identify themselves as Protestant.

According to statistics from the Secretariat of Government's Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs, 56,108 individuals registered with the government as ministers between November 1992 and July 2001. Ministers are defined in this context as any person to whom a registered religious organization has conferred the title. Of those 56,108, 19,195 are non-Protestant Christian, 36,776 are Protestant evangelical, and 137 are non-Christian.

In the 2000 census, approximately 3.53 percent of respondents indicated "no religion," and 0.85 percent did not specify a religion.

Of the 5,953 religious associations registered with the Federal Government, 52.58 percent are Protestant evangelical and 47.02 percent are non-Protestant Christian, including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox. Non-Christian organizations represent 0.4 percent of all associations registered. A wide variety of Christian foreign missionary groups operate in the country.

The non-Catholic Christian population is concentrated primarily in the south. According to INEGI figures, Chiapas state, with approximately 4 percent of the country's population, has the largest non-Catholic population at 36.2 percent, compared to the national average of approximately 12 percent. The state of Tabasco's non-Catholics represent approximately 29.6 percent of state residents, followed by Campeche state at approximately 28.7 percent, and Quintana Roo state at approximately 26.8 percent.

There is a small population of Muslims in the city of Torreon, Coahuila, and a group of approximately 300 in the San Cristobal de las Casas area in Chiapas.

In early 2002, a Roman Catholic church official in Chiapas told the press that some 12 percent of that state's residents identified themselves as "non-believers," with 64 percent of the state's residents identifying as Roman Catholic and 22 percent as Protestant evangelical. In indigenous communities in Chiapas, the residents identifying themselves as Roman Catholic is even lower, according to one press report. A December 2001 article reported that in the Chol area, only 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 political party and religion. Furthermore, whatever their political affiliations, local leaders often are reported to manipulate religious tensions in their communities for their own political or economic benefit (see Sections II and III).

According to news reports in 2000, approximately 55 percent of persons surveyed attend religious ceremonies at least once a week; 19 percent, once a month; and 20 percent, less than once a month.

There are a number of foreign religious workers present in the country.

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; however, there are some restrictions. State and municipal governments generally protect this right; however, 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 the ceremonies and acts of worship of their respective belief. 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 constitutional prohibition against any form of discrimination, including discrimination against persons on the basis of religion.

Religious associations must register with the Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Federal Secretariat of Government (SSAR) to operate legally. Although the Government rejects applications because of incomplete documentation, the registration process is routine. An estimated 5,871 religious associations are registered. During the period covered by this report, the SSAR registered 17 associations. In addition, 116 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, must not be organized primarily to make money, and must not promote acts 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 SSAR promotes religious tolerance and investigates cases of religious intolerance. All religious associations have equal access to the SSAR for registering complaints. SSAR officials generally are responsive and helpful in mediating disputes among communities. When parties present a religious dispute to the SSAR, it attempts to mediate a solution acceptable to all. If mediation fails, the parties may submit the problem to the SSAR for binding arbitration. If the parties do not agree to submit to binding arbitration, one or the other may elect to resort to judicial redress. Destruction of property or causing physical harm to other persons are criminal acts and prosecutable under the law. 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 local leaders (see Section III).

The SSAR investigated 31 cases during 2001 and another 10 during the first half of 2002 and reportedly resolved 23 cases. Five states, mostly in the south, have their own under secretaries for religious affairs.

The existing situation of religious freedom reflects the historic tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern state. Consequently, severe restrictions on the rights of the Church and members of the clergy were written into the country's present Constitution. In 1992 the Government reestablished diplomatic relations with the Holy See and lifted almost all restrictions on the Catholic Church. This latter 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 provides that education should avoid privileges of religion. Religious instruction is prohibited in public schools; however, religious associations are free to maintain their own 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 continue on to a secondary school, one must attend an accredited primary school. The law does not prohibit secondary level home schooling.

Religious associations must notify the Government of their intent to hold a religious meeting outside of a licensed place of worship. The Government received 7,572 such notifications during 2001 and the first half of 2002. On March 31, 2002, thousands of Protestant evangelicals met, reportedly for the fifth consecutive year, in Mexico City's main square to celebrate their faith. The Mexico City government contributed medical services, public restrooms, and security for the event.

The Government requires religious groups to apply for a permit to construct new buildings or to convert existing buildings into new churches. The Government granted permits for 726 buildings between June 1, 2001 and May 31, 2002, the most recent period for which statistics are available. In the cases of 576 pending applications, the SSAR has requested additional information. The information required ranges from technical data about the building in question, to proof that a building's owner consents to its conversion into a religious facility. Religious groups report no difficulty in obtaining government permission for these activities.

Since assuming office in December 2001, the Secretary of Government has engaged in dialog with representatives from various religions to discuss issues of mutual concern. An Interfaith Council includes official representatives from the Anglican, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Lutheran, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh Dharma, and Sufi Islam communities.

Of nine official holidays, two are associated with Christian religious events (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

The Constitution 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.

To visit the country for religious purposes, foreign religious workers must secure government permission. The federal Government limits the number of visas each religious group is allowed. However, the Government has granted 33,930 such visas since 1994, including 5,796 between June 1, 2001 and May 15, 2002.

By law religious associations 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 broadcast radio or television, and permission is granted routinely. Between June 1, 2001, and May 15, 2002, the authorities approved 11,706 transmissions.

In 2001 there were reports that municipal officials in Chiapas had suspended Protestant evangelical radio programs, including those of the Adventist Church, on technical and administrative grounds. In April 2002, Adventist officials reported that the problem had been resolved, and that radio programs were broadcasting again.

In January 2002, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), called for the state of Zacatecas to reinstate two students, both members of Jehovah's Witnesses, who refused to salute the national flag and for an administrative investigation into the conduct of school director who attempted to prevent their registration.

Any building for religious purposes constructed pursuant to a permit after 1992 is the property of the religious association that built it. All religious buildings erected before 1992 are "national patrimony" and owned by the State. According to Secretariat of Government statistics, there were 90,879 buildings dedicated to religious activities as of July 31, 2001. Of those, 80,846 were property of the State, and 10,033 belonged to religious associations.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In parts of Chiapas, local leaders of indigenous communities sometimes regard evangelical groups and Catholic lay catechists as unwelcome outside influences and potential economic and political threats. While religious differences often were a prominent feature of such incidents, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power were very often the underlying causes of the problems. As a result, these leaders sometimes acquiesced in, or ordered, the harassment or expulsion of individuals belonging primarily, but not exclusively, to Protestant evangelical groups. In past years, expulsions involved the burning of homes and crops, beatings, and, occasionally, killings. However, there were no killings reported during the period covered by this report. On several occasions, village officials temporarily detained evangelicals for resisting participation in community festivals.

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, at least partly on religious grounds. However, this report was not corroborated, and a representative from the CNDH told the press that there are no official statistics on the displaced.

In February 2001, local leaders had expelled 150 Protestant evangelicals from their homes in Justo Sierra, Chiapas and beat several men, according to the CEDEH. The expelled families belonged largely to the Pentecostal and Seventh-Day Adventist churches, but there was also one Catholic family among them, ordered out for defending the evangelicals. The group filed a formal complaint with the state prosecutor's office in Comitan, and in June 2001, state judicial police arrested three community officials. The 27 families sought refuge in the municipal capital of Las Margaritas until the conflict was resolved in November 2001. According to the CEDEH, the issue was resolved through dialog and written agreements, with Chiapas State Governor Salazar serving as mediator. On November 24, 2001, the individuals returned to their community accompanied by the Governor. The three town leaders jailed after the expulsions also were allowed to return to Justo Sierra.

In April 2001, in the community of San Nicolas, Ixmiquilpan municipality, Hidalgo, water services had been cut off to more than 30 Protestant evangelical families. A local official also threatened the families with expulsion. The SSAR mediated community meetings throughout the months of May through August 2001, and the dispute finally was resolved on August 22, 2001. Water service was restored to the families, and both parties signed a mutual respect agreement that the Hidalgo State Governor and the Under Secretary for Religious Affairs, Javier Moctezuma Barragan, witnessed. The agreement was tested on August 26, when the town organized a work day for the community, which drew the full participation of local citizens. Press reports at the time attributed the change in attitude of the local leader partly to pressure exerted by state and federal government officials. To celebrate the solution to the threatened expulsions, on August 30, 2001, 20 evangelical churches in the area held a united thanksgiving service in the Bethel Church in Ixmiquilpan.

Adventist church members in Ixmiquilpan reported a separate case of intolerance in November 2001, when a group of some 30 individuals accosted an Adventist group worshiping in their church. The church was still under construction, and all of the necessary permits were in place, yet the group of assailants insisted that the construction be halted and physically and verbally harassed the worshipers. The Adventists sought assistance through the state and municipal governments. This report could not be confirmed.

In December 2001, in Plan Agua Prieta, in the municipality of Las Margaritas, Chiapas, local leaders reportedly detained four Protestant men for 4 hours for "not respecting community norms." The men later were released. In February 2002, five Protestant evangelical families in the community charged that traditionalist Catholic neighbors threatened to expel them from their homes. On February 15, with the intervention of municipal officials and local Roman Catholic leaders, community members reconciled and signed a pact of "non-aggression."

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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to strengthen efforts to promote interfaith understanding. It sponsored new programs and coordinated interfaith dialog.

The SSAR, in conjunction with the State of Chiapas, sponsored the translation and dissemination of the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship in four indigenous languages: Chol, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Tojolabal. One thousand copies were produced in each of the languages. The goal of the project was to provide information to indigenous communities--where many of the incidents of religious intolerance occur--about the responsibilities and rights in the area of religious freedom provided for in the Constitution and the law. The SSAR and the State of Chiapas also produced indigenous language brochures on "Tolerance" in each of the four indigenous languages (2,500 copies each in Chol and Tojoblabal, and 5,000 copies each in Tzotzil and Tzeltal.)

Between July 2001 and April 2002, the SSAR organized seven workshops in the states of Guerrero, Tabasco, and Veracruz for public officials, religious leaders, and academics. The workshops focused on the legislative framework for religious affairs. Government officials also participated in six national and international conferences related to religious freedom, including a seminar organized by the National Autonomous University of Mexico entitled: "Ten Years of the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship." The 10-year anniversary of this law provoked wide discussion within the country's religious community about its effectiveness, and the areas in which reforms may be needed. The topic was a major agenda item at the April 2002 meeting of the country's Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Secretariat of Government was an active participant in the national debate about the law during the period covered by this report. The press reported that Under Secretary for Religious Affairs Moctezuma Barragan said that the conditions were in place for a possible revision of the law, and that "all topics are open for public discussion," including the topic of religious education in public schools.

On November 16, 2001, the Secretariat of Government organized an event to celebrate the U.N. International Day of Tolerance. Representatives from 15 religious groups attended, as well as officials from the CNDH, the National Indigenous Institute (INI), and the U.N. Secretary of Government Santiago Creel, and Under Secretary Moctezuma Barragan addressed the group. The message of the event (the importance of religious tolerance and harmony) received wide media attention, and the SSAR concurrently launched a nation-wide radio campaign.

Also during the period covered by this report, the SSAR financially assisted a research project by the State of Chiapas, to understand better the situation regarding religious diversity and tolerance in that state. State officials also are preparing a text, entitled "Boys, Girls and Tolerance," which is expected to be mandatory in all Chiapas classrooms when completed. A text for first and second grade classrooms has been completed, and its introduction as a pilot program is planned.

The SSAR also is cooperating with the CNDH and the INI to increase tolerance among communities in the south. On June 13, 2001, these three agencies signed an agreement to cooperate on public education, diagnostic studies on religious disputes, and training and awareness-raising workshops. The organizations held a workshop on religious freedom in Veracruz, and planned several others for 2002.

In San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, foreign visitors continue to be able to arrange their immigration status easily. The social and political situation in Chiapas remains tense, and the Bishop of San Cristobal is active in promoting interfaith understanding in the region. On September 8, 2001, indigenous community members of different religions participated in a first-ever ecumenical celebration to pray for reconciliation in the municipality of San Cristobal. Roman Catholic and Protestant evangelical indigenous worshipers, together with Protestant pastors and Roman Catholic Bishop Felipe Arizmendi gathered in the courtyard of a school in Ejido Pueblo to pray and sing. Bishop Arizmendi reportedly asked for forgiveness for the offenses that Catholics had committed against their evangelical neighbors, and asked Protestants to do the same. In January 2002, community members in Tila, Chiapas, signed a reconciliation agreement to put an end to the "political-religious" clashes of the region. The parties pledged to recognize and apply the Constitution, which provides for ideological and religious freedom. Chiapas Governor Salazar was a participant in the meeting when the agreement was signed.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There are generally amicable relations among the various religions; however, there is religious intolerance in, and expulsions from, certain indigenous communities, particularly those in Chiapas, whose residents follow syncretistic (Catholic/Mayan) religious practices (see Section II). Competition for adherents has contributed to tension among various religious groups, particularly in the South. 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 as different and strange, and also are seen as threats to indigenous culture. Endemic poverty, land tenure disputes, and lack of educational opportunities also contribute to tensions in many of these communities. This tension at times has resulted in violence. In some southern indigenous communities, abandoning syncretistic practices for Protestant beliefs is perceived as a threat to the unique identity of that community.

In parts of Chiapas, local leaders of indigenous communities sometimes acquiesced in, or ordered, the harassment or expulsion of individuals belonging primarily, but not exclusively, to Protestant evangelical groups (see Section II). Abuses related to these incidents apparently did not occur solely on the basis of religion. While religious differences often were a prominent feature of such incidents, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power very often were the underlying causes of the problems. The most common incidents of intolerance arose in connection with traditional community celebrations. Protestant evangelicals often resist making financial donations demanded by community norms that will go partly to local celebrations of Catholic religious holidays, and resist participating in festivals involving alcohol.

There were a number of cases of religious intolerance caused by societal attitudes during the period covered by this report, the majority of which occurred in Chiapas. Tensions continued in San Juan Chamula, where approximately 130 children of Protestant evangelicals reportedly have been denied access to the local public schools in 6 communities every year since 1994. On May 1, 2002, approximately 20 Protestant evangelical Tzotzil community members, along with 2 National Action Party (PAN) council members, were harassed and detained by local leaders on charges of "religious and political intolerance." On May 6, in the community of Botatulan, six members of the Jehovah's Witness church were reputedly stopped by local leaders who demanded 5,000 pesos in return for releasing them. These detentions have not been verified. In addition, local traditionalist/syncretist leaders in San Juan Chamula suspended services by Roman Catholic clergy in the municipality and later expelled two priests and a deacon from the area. On May 8, police arrested a Roman Catholic teacher after discovering a cache of arms and explosives in his cottage in San Juan Chamula. A Roman Catholic vicar in the community charged that Protestant leaders planted the weapons. The discord between traditionalist/syncretists, Protestant, and Roman Catholic believers continued at the end of the period covered by this report. According to a Protestant representative of the group "Alas de Aguila," these incidents are "provoked by economic or political interests of local leaders in Chamula, more than by the supposed violation by evangelicals of traditional uses and customs of the traditional Chamula church."

On September 10, 2001, a disturbance broke out between traditionalist/syncretist Catholic and Protestant evangelical community members in Mitzinton, Chiapas, after traditionalist community members attempted to coerce three evangelical community members to sign a document committing them to leave their community "voluntarily". Upon learning of this, a group of evangelicals gathered in the town center to defend their three neighbors, and when confronted by a group of traditionalists, a disturbance ensued, in which 10 persons were injured. The state police sent 50 agents to prevent further disturbances. On March 4, 2002, traditionalists burned the houses of 4 evangelical families in Mitzinton, where some 30 persons lived. One of the houses also reportedly had 17 bullet marks in it. Two hundred Protestant evangelicals left the community in March, in response to threats of expulsion, but returned on April 3 despite fear of further threats. Protestant community members have been dissatisfied with the government response to the incidents. The State Attorney General's office has initiated an investigation.

In February 2002, traditionalist Catholic community members in the community of San Juan Metaltepec Mixes, Oaxaca, expelled a group of 20 Protestant evangelical families for their religious beliefs. This report could not be verified.

Following complaints from neighboring communities that the opening of an Adventist church in Francisco I. Madero, Tecpatan municipality, would violate local "uses and customs," in March 2001, Francisco I. Madero residents requested local government assistance in relieving tension among the communities and convincing the neighboring communities of the Adventists' right to use their place of worship. In March 2001, the municipal mayor convened a meeting with all parties involved as well as a Chiapas government representative of the SSAR. No progress was made, and the SSAR requested that the Chiapas Secretariat of Public Security take precautionary measures to avoid further confrontations. By the end of the period covered by this report, the SSAR had not received complaints from any of the parties involved. Despite an agreement among the parties that the church could reopen, it had not done so by the end of the period covered by this report.

The situation in Plan de Ayala, where syncretist Catholics expelled 29 Protestant evangelical families and destroyed 14 of their homes in July 2000, remained stable. The families have returned with the assistance of local government authorities, although some tensions remain.

Government officials, the national human rights ombudsman, and interfaith groups are conducting discussions about incidents of intolerance in some parts of the south, to promote social peace.

The Biblical Society of Mexico, directed by Abner Lopez Perez, announced the conclusion of a 15-year project to translate the Bible into the Tzotzil language, a language used by more than 100,000 indigenous Mexicans. According to Lopez, 4 translators and 200 religious leaders from various parts of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, participated in this effort. The project also translated the Bible into Tzetl.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Throughout the period covered by this report, Embassy staff met with government officials, staff of nongovernmental organizations, and members of religious groups to discuss and raise religious freedom issues.

Embassy staff participated in the Secretariat of Government's celebration of the International Day of Tolerance in November 2001, and met with officials in the Subsecretariat for Religious Affairs within the Secretariat of Government to discuss religious freedom. On trips outside of Mexico City, Embassy staff met religious leaders including the current and past Bishops of San Cristobal de las Casas, and leaders of the Chiapas-based Buen Samaritano Evangeli Group. In April 2002, a representative from the Office of International Religious Freedom, accompanied by Embassy officials, met with several religious leaders and government officials in Mexico City and the state of Chiapas, including the current and past Bishops of San Cristobal de las Casas and Chiapas state authorities. The Embassy was in contact with the CNDH, the president of the Evangelical Commission in Defense of Human Rights and the Mexican Episcopal Conference (Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference) to discuss religious freedom issues. Embassy staff also visited officials of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and representatives of U.S. faith-based organizations in Mexico City to become familiar with their concerns.

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