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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 > 2003 Report on International Religious Freedom > Western Hemisphere


International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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; 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 certain southern parts of the country, 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 97.5 million.

According to the 2000 census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Computation (INEGI), approximately 88 percent of the respondents identified themselves at least nominally as Roman Catholic. The latest statistics available show that 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. Approximately 3.53 percent of respondents indicated "no religion," and 0.85 percent did not specify a religion.

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. Press reports have estimated that there are more than 5,000 Protestant churches and 7,000 pastors.

There are a number of foreign religious workers present in the country. According to statistics from the Secretariat of Government's Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs, 58,460 individuals entered the country and registered as ministers with the Government between November 1992 and May 15, 2003. Ministers are defined in this context as any person to whom a registered religious organization has conferred the title.

There are currently 6,619 religious associations registered with the Federal Government, of which a vast majority are Protestant evangelical and non-Protestant Christian. Non-Christian groups represent a very small percentage of registered associations. 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. Non-Catholics represent approximately 29.6 percent of the population of Tabasco state, 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 number of 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.

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, but 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.

In order to operate legally, religious associations must register with the Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Federal Secretariat of Government (SSAR). Although the Government rejects applications because of incomplete documentation, the registration process is routine. The latest statistics available show an estimated 6,619 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 and 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 27 cases during 2002 and another 12 during the first half of 2003 and reportedly resolved 14 cases. Five states—Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Veracruz, and Mexico State—have their own under secretaries for religious affairs. One more state, Nuevo Leon, is considering establishing a similar office.

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 6,009 such notifications during the period from June 2002 to May 2003. In October 2002, a Jehovah's Witnesses gathering drew almost 90,000 followers to the Aztec Stadium in a three-day celebration of their faith. One thousand one hundred followers were baptized into the faith during the celebration.

The Government requires religious groups to apply for a permit to construct new buildings or to convert existing buildings into new churches. The latest statistics available show that the Government granted permits for 726 buildings between June 1, 2001, and May 31, 2002. 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. However, on May 25, representatives of the political party Mexico Possible brought a complaint before the Federal Elections Institute (IFE) accusing the Bishop of Cuernavaca (Morelos State) of violating article 130 of the Constitution and article 404 of the Penal Code. Both articles state that religious ministers cannot call for their followers to vote for or against a political party. While the Bishop did not call for voting specifically against Mexico Possible, he did say that it was a sin to vote in favor of candidates who favor homosexuality and a woman's right to choose, platforms that Mexico Possible espouses. Representatives for Mexico Possible are also considering lodging complaints against the Bishops of Queretaro, Tlaxcala, and Acapulco (Guerrero) for similar violations. The Under Secretariat for Religious Affairs is debating whether or not the Bishops violated the Religious Associations law, and a public discussion ensued on whether or not there should be reforms to article 130 of the Constitution. The Bishops are subject to a fine of up to 20,000 minimum salary days (equivalent to approximately 80,000 USD) under the Religious Associations law and a fine of up to 500 minimum salary days (approximately 2,000 USD) under the Federal Penal Code.

To visit the country for religious purposes, foreign religious workers must secure government permission. Though the Federal Government limits the number of visas each religious group is allowed, the application procedure is essentially a routine and fairly uncomplicated process. The Government has granted 41,742 such visas since 1994, including 7,812 between June 1, 2001 and April 30, 2003.

According to the Religious Associations law, religious groups 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, 2002, and May 30, 2003, the authorities approved 12,906 transmissions.

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 the latest statistics available from the Secretariat of Government, 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 groups.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

While the Government generally respects this right in practice, poor enforcement mechanisms have failed to prevent local authorities in the state of Chiapas from discriminating against persons based on their religious beliefs. This is particularly evident in the failure of federal and local governments to punish those responsible for acts of religiously motivated violence. 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. 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 (see Section III). Religious differences often were a prominent feature of such incidents; however, ethnic differences, land disputes, and struggles over local political and economic power were frequently the underlying causes of the problems. In past years, expulsions involved the burning of homes and crops, beatings, and, occasionally, killings. During the period covered by this report, there were at least five persons killed and several wounded in incidents that had a religious dimension. 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 National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) told the press that there are no official statistics on the displaced.

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.

On March 1, the CNDH issued its recommendation number 5/2003 to 31 state governors and the Secretary of Public Education (SEP). The recommendation calls for the SEP and governors to issue instructions to all entities within their jurisdiction to stop the practice of sanctioning students who, because of their religious beliefs, do not participate in civic ceremonies rendering honors to the national anthem and flag. The practice has been particularly discriminatory to students of Jehovah's Witnesses. According to the CNDH, it has received 1,110 complaints of discrimination on religious grounds, especially against Jehovah's Witnesses adherents, during the period June 1991 to March 2003. The CNDH also called on the Governor of Michoacan to reinstate seven students of the indigenous Mazahua community of Cresencio Morales belonging to Jehovah's Witnesses who were expelled from the Benito Juarez school in 2001 for refusing to participate in civic ceremonies rendering honors to the national anthem and flag.

On May 17 and 18, followers of Krishna held their first ever Ratha Yatra festival in Mexico City. While the festival has been celebrated for many years in other cities, this was the first time it was held in the capital city.

In October 2002, Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Jose Moreno declared to almost 90,000 followers gathered at the Aztec Stadium that discrimination against Jehovah's Witnesses has diminished in the past few years. He cited that during 2000-2001 there were only 200 cases of discrimination of Jehovah's Witnesses children with problems in receiving education, compared with 3,000 cases in 1992-93. He also highlighted that the Secretariat of Education had established criteria to prevent children from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

In October 2002, the Federal Government announced plans to reform the current Religious Associations law. The changes proposed include allowing religious associations to own non-print mass media communications entities, allowing government officials to attend religious acts, recognizing conscientious objectors, and opening prisons and health institutions to "spiritual help."

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There are generally amicable relations among the various religions; however, there are cases of religious intolerance and expulsions from certain indigenous communities, particularly those in Chiapas, whose residents follow syncretistic (Catholic/Mayan) religious practices. 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. 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 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.

On January 28, five persons--two state policemen, two municipal officials, and a civilian--were ambushed and killed in the community of Tres Cruces, municipality of San Juan Chamula. Catholic members of the community blamed evangelicals for the ambush, but Roman Catholic Church officials issued a statement declaring that the event was not due primarily to religious motives.

The community of Mitziton, in the municipality of San Cristobal de Las Casas, was the location of two incidents in February 2003, and two other incidents in October 2002. On February 8, 2003, unidentified gunmen fired at a vehicle belonging to Sixto Heredia Gomez, an evangelical Tzotzil from the area. Heredia stopped short of accusing any particular group but claimed that traditionalist Catholics of the area were upset because of the presence of evangelicals in the community. Two days later, on February 10, in the same community, the home of Pedro Gomez Lopez, located in the El Chiverio neighborhood, was burned down. Gomez Lopez stated that he suspected traditionalist Catholic leaders were behind the arson. In October 2002, unknown persons cut a power line to an evangelical pastor's property in Mitziton. Later that month, a group of 20 assailants dragged the pastor from his home, beat him, and threatened to kill him unless he left Mitziton.

On March 2, traditional Catholics in Los Pozos, municipality of Huixtan, Chiapas, destroyed an evangelical church. The traditional Catholics prevented evangelical churchgoers from celebrating the fourth anniversary of the church's founding at the church on February 28. Two days later, the wood structure was burned down, and local traditional leaders jailed eight of the evangelicals for several days.

Traditionalist local leaders have denied approximately 130 children of evangelicals access to the local public schools in 6 communities every year since 1994. In August 2002, a confrontation between traditionalist Catholics and Protestant evangelicals in the community of Tzaljaltetic, in the municipality of San Juan Chamula, left five persons wounded. The incident occurred when Catholics did not allow Protestant parents to register their children at the local school. The Chiapas state Secretariat of Government (SEGOB) initiated a dialog with both parties to reach an agreement and avoid future confrontations.

In November 2002, seven indigenous persons were wounded in a clash in the community of Tzetelton, in the municipality of San Juan Chamula. According to initial press reports, a group of indigenous evangelical Protestants attacked a group of Roman Catholics meeting in a school to plan for the December 12 Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Other press accounts reported the seven were wounded accidentally by the men in the school firing at the evangelicals defending themselves from an attack by a group of traditionalist Catholics. Members of the evangelical community alleged that local police would not protect them and at times sided with the traditionalist Catholics.

In November 2002, a group of indigenous Jehovah's Witnesses families abandoned their homes in the the communities of Tzajaltetic and Botatulan, in the municipality of San Juan Chamula. The group fled for fear of attacks against them by local groups of Catholics.

Several persons accused of being witches have been killed in Chiapas during the last decade. On April 14, residents in the community of Rancho Narvaez, in the municipality of San Juan Chamula, burned alive Domingo Xilon Xilon, accused of practicing witchcraft. Authorities have no leads in the case.

In September 2002, near San Juan Chamula, unidentified gunmen shot to death four adults and wounded five others, including two children. One of those killed was Diego Hernandez Lopez, whom local residents had accused of practicing witchcraft, according to the police.

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.

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 took part in the International Forum on Religious Freedom organized by the Secretariat of Government in Mexico City on October 17-18, 2002. On September 1, 2002, Embassy staff participated in the Mexico Episcopal Conference's celebration of International Migrant Day at the Basilica of Guadalupe. Diplomatic missions from 23 other countries also participated.

Released on December 18, 2003

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