International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. There is no state religion; however, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Paramilitaries occasionally targeted representatives and members of religious organizations. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) regularly targeted religious leaders and practitioners, killing, kidnapping, extorting, and inhibiting free religious expression. Illegal armed groups generally targeted religious leaders and practitioners for political, rather than religious, reasons; guerrillas committed the vast majority of these abuses.

Relations between the various faiths generally are amicable, although some indigenous leaders reportedly were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

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 751,680 square miles, and its estimated population is 44 million. Although the Government does not keep official statistics on religious affiliation, a 2001 poll commissioned by the country's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, indicated that the country's population is 81 percent Roman Catholic. Of the remaining respondents, 10 percent identified themselves as "Christians" and 3.5 percent as "evangelicals." Another 1.9 percent professed no religious beliefs. According to data provided by their respective national headquarters, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) have 180,000, 130,000, and 110,000 members, respectively, totaling approximately 1 percent of the population. Other religious faiths and movements with a significant number of adherents in Colombia include Judaism, Islam, animism, and various syncretistic belief systems. An estimated 60 percent of respondents to the El Tiempo poll reported that they do not practice their faith actively.

Adherents of some religions are concentrated in specific geographic regions. For example, the vast majority of practitioners of a syncretistic religion that blends Roman Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians residing in the western department of Choco. Jews are concentrated in major cities, Muslims on the Caribbean coast, and adherents of indigenous animistic religions in remote, rural areas.

Jewish leaders estimate that as many as one-third of the country's small Jewish community fled the country by the end of 2000. The principal causes of emigration included concerns about the growing numbers of murders, assaults, and kidnapings of Jewish business leaders, as well as economic problems caused by the country's recession.

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 Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The law states that there is no official church or religion but adds that the State "is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians' religious sentiment." Some observers have interpreted this to mean that the State unofficially sanctions a privileged position for the Roman Catholic Church, which was the country's official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution. A 1973 concordat between the Vatican and the Government remains in effect, although some of its articles are now unenforceable because of constitutional provisions on freedom of religion. A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.

The Government extends two different kinds of recognition to religious organizations: recognition of the church as a legal entity (personeria juridica) and special public recognition. The Ministry of Interior readily grants the former recognition; its only legal requirements are submission of a formal request and elementary organizational information. In addition, any foreign religious faith that wishes to establish a presence in the country must document official recognition by authorities in its home country. The Ministry of Interior may reject requests that do not comply fully with established requirements or that violate fundamental constitutional rights. Since 1995, the Ministry of Interior has approved 767 of the approximately 2000 applications received from churches; approximately 90 percent of the approvals were for evangelical churches.

Accession to a 1997 public law agreement between the State and non-Roman Catholic religions is required for such organizations to minister to their adherents through public institutions such as hospitals or prisons or to perform marriages recognized by the State. When deciding whether to grant accession to the 1997 agreement, the Government considers a religion's total membership, its degree of popular acceptance within society, and other relevant factors, such as the content of the organization's statutes and its required behavioral norms. As of the end of the period covered by this report, 12 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches had received this special status. No non-Christian religion is a signatory to the 1997 public law agreement. Many churches that are signatories to the agreement report that some local authorities have failed to comply with the accord. The Ministry of Interior has stated that it corrects local authorities when complaints of noncompliance are received. More than 40 churches have requested a new public law agreement that would have less exacting standards for recognition than the 1997 agreement. The Ministry of Interior did not move forward with a new agreement during the period covered by this report. Some prominent non-Christian religious groups, such as the Jewish community, have not requested special religious recognition.

The Ministry of Foreign Relations issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious administrators of denominations that have received special public recognition. Foreign missionaries are required to possess a special visa that is valid for a maximum of 2 years. Applicants must have a certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior confirming that the religion is registered with the Ministry, a certificate issued by the religious institution itself confirming the applicant's membership and explaining the purpose of the proposed travel, and proof of economic solvency. The Government permits proselytizing among the indigenous population, provided that it is welcome and does not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands.
The Constitution recognizes parents' right to choose the type of education their children receive, including religious instruction. It also states that no student shall be forced to receive religious education in public schools. However, the Roman Catholic Church and religious groups that have acceded to the 1997 public law agreement may provide religious instruction in public schools to students who wish to receive it. Religions without special recognition may establish parochial schools, provided that they comply with Education Ministry requirements. For example, the Jewish community operates its own schools.

The Catholic Church has a unique agreement with the Government to provide schools in rural areas that have no state-run schools. These schools are also tax exempt.

In April 2001, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSJ) ruled that the Colombian Institute of Higher Education, which administers the country' college entrance examination, must provide alternate examination dates for evangelicals whose beliefs preclude them from taking examinations on Sunday. In May 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that university instructors may not force students to reveal their religious beliefs or require them to take courses that might obligate them to do so.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Although the 1991 Constitution mandated the separation of church and state, the Roman Catholic Church retains a de facto privileged status. Participation in the 1997 agreement is required for non-Catholic groups to minister to soldiers, public hospital patients, and prisoners, and to provide religious instruction in public schools. The State only recognizes marriages celebrated by non-Roman Catholic churches that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement. A total of 12 non-Roman Catholic Christian churches have received this special status. Some signatories to the public law agreement have complained of discrimination at the local level, such as refusals by municipal authorities to recognize marriages performed by these churches and the lack of Protestant chaplains in the armed forces, hospitals, and prisons. However, the Ministry of Interior states that it corrects local authorities when it receives such complaints.

All legally recognized churches, seminaries, monasteries, and convents are exempt from national and local taxes. Local governments also may exempt religiously affiliated organizations such as schools and libraries. However, in practice, local governments often exempt only organizations that are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Christian Union Movement (MUC), an association of non-Catholic Christian churches, only 10 municipalities exempt non-Catholic churches from taxes.

City planning restricts the number of churches in residential areas. Due to its historical presence, the Catholic Church frequently has churches many centuries old and predating zoning requirements in the best locations. Protestant denominations are often forced to locate their churches in commercial and industrial zones.

Due to threats from paramilitaries or, more frequently, guerrillas, many religious authorities were forced to refrain from publicly discussing the country's internal conflict. Illegal armed groups, especially the FARC, threatened or attacked religious officials for opposing the recruitment of minors, promoting human rights, assisting internally displaced persons, and discouraging coca cultivation. The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church also reported that paramilitaries and guerrillas issued death threats against rural priests who spoke out against them.

The FARC placed religious restrictions on persons living in its safe haven, or "despeje," that was granted by the Government in 1998 to facilitate peace negotiations. The despeje was abolished when peace talks broke off in February 2002. During the period covered by this report, the FARC continued to compel Roman Catholic and evangelical churches to pay "war taxes" levied in the former despeje and other regions under effective FARC control.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Illegal armed groups generally targeted religious leaders and practitioners for political, rather than religious, reasons. Paramilitaries occasionally targeted representatives and members of religious organizations. Guerrilla groups were responsible for the vast majority of such attacks and threats; the FARC and ELN regularly targeted religious leaders and practitioners, killing, kidnaping, extorting, and inhibiting free religious expression. The Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor General's Office reported that it is investigating the political murder of 31 assassinated members of the clergy believed to be killed because they were outspoken members of the Church.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that illegal armed groups killed 25 Catholic priests (including a bishop and an archbishop) between 1987 and mid-2002. Guerrilla attacks against Catholic Church leaders increased during the reporting period. In 2002, authorities recorded the violent deaths of 11 priests, one nun, and Cali Archbishop Monsignor Isaias Duarte Cancino. Nearly all of the killings were attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC. According to the Colombian Evangelical Council, 133 evangelical ministers have been killed in the past 10 years, the majority since 2000. During the year, Colombian NGO Justapaz reported that 28 evangelical church leaders had been assassinated. Most of the latest killings occurred in the southwestern department of Caqueta, a largely rural department dominated by the FARC. The FARC is believed to be responsible for 90 percent of the murders of Protestant pastors.

In May 2002, FARC forces engaged in combat with paramilitaries inaccurately fired gas cylinder bombs at the town of Bojaya, Choco department. One of the projectiles struck the town's main church, killing 119 civilians who had gathered inside for protection. There is no evidence that the church was targeted intentionally or that the assault was religiously motivated.

In response to the increased risks faced by church members, 757 local security fronts made up of people who live close to churches have been organized to protect Roman Catholic priests and officials. The Colombian National Police designed the program following the assassination of Monsignor Isaias Duarte Cancino in March 2002. This protection plan has not been extended to include other faiths.

Unknown perpetrators killed a number of religious leaders.

For example, on May 8, unidentified assailants wearing camouflage uniforms identified and then murdered four members of a Protestant church in Tierralta, Cordoba Department. The victims included evangelical pastor Miguel Enrique Posada Vertel, church treasurer Ana Berenice Girlado Vasquez, an 80-year-old woman, and a teenage boy.

On August 5, 2002, FARC guerrillas in San Vincente de Caguen, Caqueta Department, killed United Pentecostal Church pastor Abel Ruiz. The United Pentecostal Church reports that more than 70 pastors have been killed over the past 3 years and more than 300 churches have been closed due to guerrilla attacks.

On September 20, 2002, paramilitary forces outside a chapel in Medellin, Antioquia Department, killed Father Jose Luis Arroyave. The priest had been an activist in the conflictive Comuna 13 community.

On September 25, 2002, the Colombian Army killed FARC 54th Front Commander Jesus Vargas, in a clash in Meta Department. Vargas stood accused of murdering a priest in 1998.

On September 28, 2002, Parish Priest Jorge Sanchez Ramirez was murdered by unknown assailants along a road in Palmira, Valle del Cauca Department. Sanchez had been an outspoken critic of Colombia's violence.

On October 17, 2002, several unidentified armed men killed Jose Luis Cardenas, parish priest in his hometown of Chalan, Sucre Department. A day later, the body of Gabriel Arias Posada of the Dioceses of Armenai, Caldas Department was discovered. Arias had been on a humanitarian mission, negotiating the release of former Quindio Senator Ancizar Lopez, who was kidnaped by the FARC.

Religious leaders and practitioners were the targets of kidnapings, primarily by guerilla groups.

In February, the FARC released Seventh-day Adventist minister Gonzalo Cardona after 5 months in captivity in Antioquia Department.

On October 8, 2002, the FARC kidnaped a 76-year-old evangelical minister in Sucre Department. The guerrillas held him for 12 days while demanding a large ransom, but later released him when they discovered the pastor was not wealthy.

On November 11, 2002, guerrillas from the FARC kidnaped Zipaquira bishop and president of the Latin American Bishops Council, Jorge Enrique Jiminez Carvajal, and parish priest Desiderio Orjuela while traveling to a religious ceremony in Pacho, Cudinamarca Department. On November 15, the Colombian Army and the Prosecutor General's Office rescued the two men and arrested John Leider Desiderio Chaparro, the guerrilla implicated in the double kidnaping.

In 2002, the Human Rights Office of the Vice Presidency registered six kidnapings of Catholic Church clergy, while Justapaz reported three kidnapings of evangelical ministers during the period covered by this report.

The Bishops' Conference of the Roman Catholic Church reported that 57 Catholic churches in 8 different departments have been seriously damaged or destroyed in the last decade, including 9 churches in the past 2 years. Roman Catholic churches generally are not attacked intentionally, but often are affected by guerrilla attacks on police stations and mayors' offices located near churches.

According to the MUC, as of August 2002, the FARC had forced the closures of more than 450 evangelical churches in the departments of Meta, Guajira, Tolima, Vaupes, Guainia, Guaviare, Vichada, Casanare, and Arauca. The FARC also extorted or forced the closure of rural evangelical schools. The MUC reported an overall increase in the number of kidnapings and extortions. Guerrillas continued to attack rural evangelical Christians and their churches, in the belief that the churches were fronts for U.S. Government activities. Justapaz reported that 43 evangelical churches closed due to guerrilla and paramilitary violence during the year. Mormon church leaders and facilities remained under threat for the same reason.

Guerrillas or paramilitaries harass some indigenous groups that practice animistic or syncretistic religions. However, such harassment generally appears motivated by political or economic differences (whether real or perceived) or by questions of land ownership, rather than by religious concerns.

A small Taoist commune exists in a mountainous rural region of Santander department. Through its website, the community has asserted that it is harassed by government security forces. Government officials claim to have received reports that the commune holds residents there against their will. The number of residents of the commune is unknown, although it is accepted widely that many are foreigners. The community's insularity and isolation in a region with a significant guerrilla presence makes it difficult to gather accurate information.

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 among the various faiths generally are amicable. The Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical churches reported that some indigenous leaders were intolerant of nonsyncretistic forms of worship.

A number of faith-based nongovernmental organizations promote human rights, social and economic development, and a negotiated settlement to the country's armed conflict. The most influential of these organizations either are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church or were founded by Church officials. The Church continues to be the only institutional presence in many rural areas, and conducts important social work through its Social Pastoral Agency.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains regular contact with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and other religions, and discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

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