FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE AND RELIGION1
The Fundamental Statute provides for freedom of conscience and religion,
by stipulating that all religions may be freely exercised and by recognizing the
churches of all faiths as juridical persons that may acquire, possess and
dispose of goods, provided they are used solely for religious, social welfare
and educational purposes.2
The above provision replaced the rules regarding this right contained in
the Guatemalan Constitution of 1965. The repealed Constitution provided in
Article 66 that freedom to exercise all religions was guaranteed, and added that
any person had the right to practice his religion or belief, both publicly and
privately, by means of education, worship and observance, without any other
restrictions than peace, morality, public order and due respect for patriotic
symbols. Religious associations and groups were prohibited from joining
political parties, and ministers of religion were prohibited from serving in
In addition, Article 67 of the Constitution recognized the Catholic
Church and other churches as juridical persons that could acquire, possess and
dispose of goods “provided they were used for religious, social welfare or
educational purposes.” This provision also stipulated that the immovable
property of churches was exempt from taxes, contributions and fees. It also
stated that the legal personality of churches would be determined by the rules
of their institution and their constitutive bases; and that the State would
grant the Catholic Church title to any immovable property it currently possessed
and peacefully employed for its own purposes. The Constitution also stipulated
that “goods signed over to third parties or to the State had been used for its
services could not be affected.”
Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Practice
The people of Guatemala are free to exercise the religion of their choice
and the rule on this right contained in the Fundamental Statute is generally
observed and adhered to, although there continued to be delicate problems in the
relations between the Catholic Church and the Government of General Ríos Montt.
Most of the people of Guatemala are Catholics. However, Catholic priests
and other religious personnel have suffered in the recent past from the
consequences of the climate of violence that has prevailed in this country in
Under General Ríos Montt’s Government, the difficulties between the Catholic
Church and the State initially decreased, and according to testimony received by
the Commission during its on-site visit, existing tensions began to decline in
the urban sectors but serious problems continued in what are known as the rural
areas of conflict.
Since the coup d’etat of March 1982, the Commission has received
no reports of assassination, kidnapping or torture of priests or nuns. However,
during the visit of Pope John Paul II, the arrest, torture and murder of the
catechist Felipe Caal in the town of Las Canas, Province of Izobol, was made
In its interviews with Catholic priests, the Commission was informed
about some of the Church’s programs, including the establishment of catechist
training centers (for lay religious leaders), which have led to the
establishment in rural areas of 70 Catholic social action centers, whose main
mission is to teach the Catholic religion and work in social action programs to
help the poor and Indian communities.
These programs have given rise to considerable resistance among the
military and the landowners in the region, which, together with the climate of
violence and fear, makes their work difficult. It was precisely because of this
situation that the Church in 1982 withdrew all of its clergy from the Quiché
area, except for a priest who remained in Santa Cruz de Quiché, the department
In May 1982, the Catholic Church denounced the abuses that were being
committed against the Indian communities. In that connection, the Episcopal
Conference described “the massacre of numerous peasant and Indian families,”
in the following terms:
1. We learned about and have
verified with deep sorrow the suffering of our people from these massacres,
which the mass media has already reported. Numerous families have been viciously
murdered. Not even the aged, pregnant women and innocent children have been
2. The consequences of this
irrational violence on the survivors cannot be more tragic: orphans, premature
widows, insecurity, terror, hunger because of uncultivated land and towns
destroyed or abandoned.
3. It is out impression that the
people have no exact idea of how many refugees there are in an outside the
country, nor the extent of the continuous school dropout of both teachers and
students in the interior of the country.
In the face of this harsh reality, the Bishops of Guatemala feel called
upon to make the following observations:
1. Never in our national history has
there been such grave extremist behavior. These murders have now reached the
level of genocide. We must recognize that such events are a major violation of
the divine commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”
2. “God, who watches over all with
paternal care, wants all men to be a single family and to treat each other as
brothers.” (G:S: 24). The most elementary of human rights is the rights to
life and personal security. If this fundamental right is not respected, guarded
and protected, it will be impossible for us Guatemalans to live in a just and
brotherly social order as God wishes. We join our voices with that of Pope John
Paul II, who said: “Homicide must be called by its proper name: Homicide is
homicide, and political and ideological motives, far from changing its nature,
on the contrary, lose their own dignity.” (John Paul II, Day of Peace, January
3. It grieves us that there are
sectors on the extreme right and left who try to justify murder. We recall what
we said in a communiqué on May 15, 1980, “Neither the fear of Communism nor
the exasperated desire to change current unjust structures can be a pretext or
justification to murder one’s brother.” (CEG, May 15, 1980, 3.2).
4. Since Guatemala is a primarily
Christian country, it is inconceivable that Guatemalans can destroy each other
in an absurd and irrational confrontation, perverting the marvelous order
desired by God himself. True peace—as we have repeatedly said in our communiqué
and pastoral letters in recent years—can only be achieved through justice and
love. It would be truly painful if the words of the Lord that inspired the
Prophet Isaiah were to be applied to our country: “This people honors me with
its lips, but its heart is far from me.”
1. As Guatemalans and Bishops, we
feel a deep obligation to condemn once more the violence that has reached such
grave extremes as the massacre of peasants. We hope that every decent Guatemalan
will condemn these acts of indescribable barbarism.
2. We feel in our own hearts the
grief of so many families stricken unmercifully by this violence, and we ask and
urge in the name of God that the lives and personal safety of our peasants be
protected. We ask the authorities who are responsible for effectively ensuring
the security of persons and the common welfare to investigate these grievous
events and not allow the perpetrators to go completely unpunished.
3. We ask our Catholic faithful and
all men of good will to contribute with their attitudes in creating a climate of
true brotherhood and effective justice. We believe that there is still time to
resume to resume our efforts to achieve the just and fraternal social harmony
and peace that all decent Guatemalans desire. At this moment of our
history—which is full of light and shadows, anguish and hope—we are
confident that a Christian concept of life will replace the hate filled
ideologies that have caused us so much injury. We hope that, despite these
grievous acts, we shall never lose hope of discovering the value of suffering as
a prior step to living together in peace as brothers.
According to the information the Commission has received, the Church has
been subjected to harassment in carrying out its pastoral mission, particularly
in the countryside and Indian areas. These documents indicate that foreign
missionaries, ministers and nuns who left the country during the regime of the
previous government as the only way to save their lives have not in most cases,
despite the Government’s statements to the contrary, received permission to
return to the country, or they feel that they do not yet have guarantees for
resuming their pastoral work. The Commission recognizes the Government’s power
to regulate the entry of foreigners into the national territory. It notes,
however, that the work of missionaries in Guatemala has been hampered by the
immigration authorities, who grant only three-month permits for living and
working, which maintains a constant climate of insecurity affecting both
missionaries and their superiors. It is noted that a number of members of the
Maryknoll and Jesuit orders have been prosecuted with particular severity.
The Case of the El Quiché Region
In the Department of El Quiché, as was previously mentioned, only one
priest remains in his parish. Neither the native or foreign clergy returned to
their convents and churches until January 5, 1983, when Bishop Pablo Uriyar and
three other priests received their diocesan offices in Santa Cruz del Quiché.
It was explained to the Commission that the foregoing was due to the
environment of terror in which the religious communities of that Department
work, and to what the Commission regards as more serious: the fact that many of
the churches, rectories, convents and other religious properties have been
burned and sometimes confiscated and occupied by the army.
The following list of church properties occupied by the army in the
Department of El Quiché is included as an example:
Chupol. The church has been converted into a military barracks.
Chichicastenango. The Indian community school for men has been
converted into military dormitories.
Cruz del Quiché. The Colegio Rosario which was previously run by
Dominican nuns has been totally destroyed by Guatemalan troops.
Chinique and Zacualpa. All municipal capitals; their churches and parochial
houses are used periodically by the Guatemalan army, which has the keys to these
Jallobah. The parochial house is now a military barracks. The
nuns’ home now is a jail.
San Pedro Jacopilas, San Andrés Sajcabaja and Canilla. The
army has the keys to the churches and parochial houses and uses these facilities
The parochial house has been converted into a municipal building.
Cunen. The church and the convent are occupied by a military
San Miguel Ospartan. The
one square block parochial center is now a military barracks.
Neboaj. The church, the educational center and the nuns’ home
are now a military barracks.
Chajul and Cotzal. The same situation prevails.
Ixcan Grande and Ixcan Chiquito. In the forest area of El Quiché,
almost all of the chapels, schools, cooperatives and clinics have been destroyed
by the army.
The Commission has no knowledge to date that the Government has responded
to the claims and petitions for return of these properties to their rightful
owners and that these denunciations have been clarified, as the seriousness of
the situation requires.
The Commission noted during its on-site visit in Guatemala a significant
phenomenon that has arisen in the last year, which has a bearing on freedom of
conscience and religion, and on which various reports are being received: use of
religion as an element of political confrontation.
According to the reports, it would appear that polarization of religious
faith has occurred between the Catholic church and the traditional Protestant
churches on one hand and the fundamentalist sects, especially the Church of the
Word, which was beginning to occupy a preponderant place in Guatemalan society.
This attitude was reflected in the common practice among the rural poor of
converting to one or another fundamentalist Protestant sect, because of the
desirability of demonstrating their faith through identity cards.
Closely related to the above is the establishment in the towns of what
are known as military superintendents, approximately 60 to 70 of whom belong to
fundamentalist Protestant sects, as do most municipal mayors. The practice of
the sect members of carrying identity cards with them had the obvious purpose of
obtaining some degree of security for their bearers in the event of
interrogation by military personnel. As noted previously, this has led to the
easy transfer from one religion to another, more for the purposes of security
than conviction, which obviously implies a threat to the traditional religious
tolerance that has prevailed in Guatemala.
Catholic Bishops told the Commission that commanders of the militarized
zones gave permits for meetings to the Evangelical sects but not to Catholic
catechists and also that fundamentalist ministers frequently gave a pronounced
anti-Catholic tone to their sermons. Thus, for example, Bishop Mario Enrique Ríos
Montt has publicly stated that this polarization and manipulation of religious
feelings can have grave consequences for the life of the Guatemalan people and
might lead to a religious war that would be more serious than the present
The Commission is confident that the Government will take a position of
absolute neutrality and supervise the behavior of its subordinate officials in
order to avoid aggravating the situation described in the previous paragraphs,
which clearly would constitute a limitation for the full exercise of freedom of
conscience and religion and would worsen the climate of terror and threat in
which that right is currently exercised.
Article 12 of the American Convention on Human Rights states as
follows: Article 12. Freedom
of Conscience and Religion. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of
conscience and of religion. This right includes freedom to maintain or to
change one's religion or beliefs, and freedom to profess or disseminate
one's religion or beliefs, either individually or together with others, in
public or in private. 2. No one shall be subject to restrictions that might
impair his freedom to maintain or to change his religion or beliefs. 3.
Freedom to manifest one's religion and beliefs may be subject only to the
limitations prescribed by law that are necessary to protect public safety,
order, health, or morals, or the rights or freedoms of others. 4.
Parents or guardians, as the case may be, have the right to provide for the
religious and moral education of their children or wards that is in accord
with their own convictions.
Fundamental Statute, Chapter V, Article 23.
See the IACHR report on the status of human rights, document OEA/Ser.L/V/II.53
of October 13, 1981, pages 74 and the following, which cite cases and
examples of this problem.
An obvious fact of the confrontation between the Catholic Church and
the Church of the Word was the attitude taken at the time of the execution
on March 3, 1983, of six persons condemned by the Special Courts, which was
analyzed in the chapter on the right to life. While the Catholic Church
protested through the Papal Nuncio and described this act as incredible, the
Protestant Church of the Word announced that it supported the executions and
also said that the executions that took place a few days before the Papal
visit were an unfortunate coincidence.