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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > International Religious Freedom > 2001 Report on International Religious Freedom > Western Hemisphere


International Religious Freedom Report
Released by the 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 49,997.8 square miles, and its population is approximately 4.8 million.

Over 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, and 8.5 percent professed no religious affiliation or were atheistic. Some more recent church figures differ from the official census information; for example, the Episcopal Church claims a membership of nearly twice the census figure, and the evangelical churches also have made credible claims of higher current membership.

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 that gathers for religious holidays and Friday evening dinners but does not have an ordained rabbi or a synagogue. In 1979 many of the country's approximately 250 Jews fled abroad in the face of persecution and imprisonment by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The FSLN bombed and partially destroyed the country's only synagogue, then confiscated the property shortly afterward and converted it into a youth training camp. There is now a funeral home on the site. Some Jews have returned since the Sandinista Government was ousted democratically in 1990, but the total Jewish population of the country consists of fewer than 50 persons.

There is a small number of Muslims as well--primarily foreigners, or naturalized Nicaraguans from Iran, Libya, and Palestine who immigrated to Nicaragua in the 1980's--but there is no mosque.

Minority religions also include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Amish and Mennonite communities, the Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, 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 1900's, and the Chinese, who came to the country in large numbers shortly after World War II but many of whom fled at the time of the 1979 revolution. Chinese-Nicaraguans either arrived as Christians or converted to Christianity, and intermarried frequently with native Nicaraguans.

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 persons--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 that go back to pre-Colombian times.

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 and/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 15, 2001, they had 730 churches and approximately 124,000 baptized members.

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 in the country. The Mormons have 178 missionaries, the Unification Church has 6 families of missionaries, 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 generally protects 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 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. The historical position of the Church is such that most religiously affiliated monuments and memorials are Catholic-related. However, the predominance of the Catholic Church does not impact negatively on the religious freedom of others.

The Government's requirements for legal recognition of a church are similar to its requirements for other nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). A church must apply for "Personeria Juridica" (legal standing), which must be approved by the National Assembly. Following Assembly approval, a church must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or a foundation.

A recognized church can be granted tax-exempt status, known as exoneration. Exoneration is a contentious issue, in particular 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, and that are intended for the exclusive use of the church or organization, are eligible for exoneration from duties. Prior to 1997, the Government provided exonerated churches with a letter confirming their tax-exempt status. A church could obtain customs clearance for imported donated goods by presenting its exemption letter. However, in 1997 the Government implemented a new customs regime that required 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 could be approved and the goods released.

A number of churches and other nonprofit religious organizations, including the Lutheran Church, the Moravian Church, and the Council of Evangelical Churches, reported bureaucratic delays in obtaining exoneration from customs duties for humanitarian aid in the form of donated goods. Some non-Catholic churches complained that the Catholic Church was receiving favored 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. The Government published additional, more specific guidelines in April and June 1999 in an attempt to address these problems, but the issue remained controversial during the period covered by this report.

Missionaries do not face any special requirements other than the appropriate visa--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 unrestricted 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 Government's 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, ecumenicism is rare, and there is continuing and energetic competition for adherents between the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches.

Both the Catholic bishops and the leading evangelical leaders showed signs of a desire to work together more closely during the period covered by this report. In October 2000, Catholic Church officials, evangelical pastors, and others organized a highly publicized march against legalized abortion. The Catholic and evangelical leaders were working together to prevent the passage of a legislative bill legalizing abortion. Thus far, the legislation has not been approved.

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.

Released on October 26, 2001

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