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 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 contributes 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 an area of 49,997 square miles, and its population is approximately 5.2 million. More than 90 percent of the population belong to one of the Christian denominations. According to the most recent census, conducted in 1995, 72.9 percent of the population were members of the Roman Catholic Church, 15.1 percent were members of evangelical churches, 1.5 percent were members of the Moravian Church, and 0.1 percent were members of the Episcopal Church. An additional 1.9 percent were associated with other churches or religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Amish and Mennonite communities, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Some 8.5 percent professed no religious affiliation or were atheists. The Episcopal Church claims a membership of nearly twice the figure identified as Episcopalians by the census and the evangelical churches also have made credible claims of higher current membership ranging from 20 to 30 percent of the population. According to a January 2003 poll of 1,500 citizens that excluded the Atlantic Coast, where there is a greater prevalence of Protestant churches, 70.5 percent of respondents were Catholic, 16.1 were members of evangelical churches, and 3.2 percent belonged to other denominations, while 9.8 percent claimed no religious affiliation.

The total number of citizens who practice a religion other than Christianity is extremely small. There are small communities of non-Christians, including a small Jewish community of fewer than 50 persons (including expatriates). They gather for religious holidays and Sabbath dinners, but do not have an ordained rabbi or a synagogue.

There are approximately 200 Muslims, primarily resident aliens, or naturalized Nicaraguans from Iran, Libya, and Palestine, who immigrated to the country in the 1980s. There is 1 mosque in Managua with approximately 100 members. Minority religions also include the Baha'i Faith and the Church of Scientology. Although these religions are perceived as foreign, the Government neither monitors them nor alerts the public to their presence.

Other immigrant groups include the "Turcos," Palestinian Christians whose ancestors came to Central America in the early 1900s, and the Chinese, who either arrived as Christians or converted to Christianity, and frequently intermarried with native citizens.

There are no longer any pre-Colombian religions in the country, although there is a "freedom movement" within some Moravian churches to allow indigenous Amerindian spiritual expression, often through music. The Catholic Church is the most syncretistic of the denominations and does not criticize or interfere with non-Christian aspects of religious festivals held in its name. For example, each August up to 30,000 people, many of them painted red or coated in motor oil, gather to carry "Dominguito," a sacred 10-inch statue of Saint Dominic, from his home church in a suburb of Managua to another church downtown. A week later the revelers reconvene to carry the statue back. Such events have historical roots in the pre-Colombian era.

Geographically, Moravian and Episcopal communities are concentrated on the Atlantic coast, while Catholicism and evangelical churches dominate the Pacific and central regions. There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: blacks and Amerindians, generally from the Atlantic coast, are more likely to belong to the Moravian or Episcopal Church. Some evangelical churches have focused on the booming, remote towns of the central South Atlantic Region and have a strong presence there.

The evangelical churches are growing rapidly, especially in poor or remote areas. For example, in 1980 the Assemblies of God had 80 churches and fewer than 5,000 members. According to church leader Saturnino Cerato, as of May, there were 762 churches and approximately 124,000 baptized members. The evangelical churches operate two private universities without interference from the Government.

Anecdotal evidence points to proportionally higher church attendance among members of the new evangelical churches than among members of the Catholic and traditional Protestant churches. In the poorer neighborhoods, the small evangelical churches are filled to capacity nearly every evening. According to a Catholic Church official, the Catholic Church is growing numerically but losing ground proportionally.

Foreign missionaries operate freely in the country. The Mormons have 212 missionaries, the Mennonites have 4 missionary families, and nearly all of the non-Catholic denominations have at least 1 missionary family 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. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Constitution also states that no one "shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare their ideology or beliefs." The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

The Roman Catholic Church is not an official state religion; however, it enjoys a close relationship with the secular Government. The Roman Catholic Church is the most politically active religious denomination and has significant political influence. Catholic Church leaders routinely meet with senior government officials. There are allegations that state funds have been used to support church-related activities that are purely religious in nature. However, the Administration of President Enrique Bolanos has been more distant with the Church hierarchy than was the previous administration, and the Church hierarchy has publicly sided with ex-President Aleman in his fight against charges of corruption. The historical position of the Church is such that most religiously affiliated monuments, memorials, and holidays are Catholic-related. However, the predominance of the Catholic Church does not have a negative effect on the religious freedom of others.

Evangelicals are free to be politically active, and have formed a political party called Partido Camino Cristiano, or Christian Path Party. The party has 4 legislators in the 92-member National Assembly including 1 ordained evangelical minister, Guillermo Osorno.

The Government's requirements for legal recognition of a religious group are similar to its requirements for other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A church must apply for "Personeria Juridica" (legal standing), which the National Assembly must approve. Following Assembly approval, a church must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or a foundation. Groups that do not register cannot obtain tax-exempt status and technically do not have standing to make legal obligations and contracts, although a number of groups have not registered, but continue to operate without penalty.

A recognized church may be granted tax-exempt status, known as exoneration. Exoneration is a contentious issue, particularly with regard to exemption from customs duties on imported goods donated for humanitarian purposes. Goods donated to established churches and other nonprofit religious organizations recognized by the Government that are intended for the exclusive use of the church or organization are eligible for exoneration from duties. Groups must receive clearance from the Office of External Cooperation, the Ministry of Finance, the Customs Office, and the municipality in which the donated goods would be used before a tax exemption is approved and the goods released.

A number of churches and other nonprofit religious organizations, including the Assemblies of God, reported bureaucratic delays in obtaining exoneration from customs duties for humanitarian aid in the form of donated goods, although most reported that such delays had decreased significantly since 2001. Some non-Catholic churches complained that the Catholic Church received preferential treatment in this regard and in practice did not face the same bureaucratic requirements applied to other religious and humanitarian organizations. However, some Catholic groups, including Catholic Relief Services, reported similar bureaucratic problems in obtaining exoneration from duties on donated goods. In April, the National Assembly approved a new Tax Equity Law that attempted to streamline the process of obtaining exoneration. Under the new law, all groups must re-qualify for exoneration. However, many religious groups felt that this legislation would improve the process for obtaining exoneration, although it remains largely untested.

In October 2002, the Government closed down radio station "La Poderosa" when it determined that its license, held by the Commission for the Promotion of the Archdiocese (COPROSA), an NGO founded by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, was invalid because COPROSA had not completed all of the requirements to register legally as an NGO with the Ministry of Government. La Poderosa broadcast language that sometimes incited attacks on the personal security of President Bolaos, and other public officials. Other media and some political leaders sharply criticized the closing of La Poderosa while at the same time stressing the need for all media to follow ethical standards, and engage in better self-regulation.

Missionaries do not face any special requirements other than obtaining the religious worker visa, which is given freely to everyone who follows the application guidelines. The process of obtaining a religious worker visa takes several months and must be completed before the missionary arrives in the country. During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of difficulties by missionaries in obtaining the proper visa.

Private religious schools operate in the country. The Government provides financial support to a number of primary and secondary schools owned and directed by the Catholic Church by paying the salaries of teachers at these schools.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

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 religions are very different on the two coasts. On the Atlantic side, where the three dominant churches are the Moravian, Episcopal, and Catholic Churches, there is an ecumenical spirit. The churches even are known to celebrate the Eucharist together. However, on the Pacific side, ecumenism is rare, and there is continuing and energetic competition for adherents between the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches.

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 also maintains a regular dialog with the principal religious leaders and organizations.

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