Chile is a democratic republic. This form of government follows the principle of separation of powers. The Constitution is the highest-ranking norm; however, it is the duty of the state organs to respect and promote the human rights guaranteed not only by the Constitution but also by the international treaties ratified by Chile.
In response to the massive protests and demonstrations demanding greater social justice seen in October 2019, the government has proposed a new social agenda through an Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution and intends to hold a constitutional referendum next October to decide whether or not to change the Pinochet-era Constitution.
Currently, the State guarantees religious freedom in a broad range of regulatory provisions. Among them are:
Figure 1: Religious Freedom – Main legal framework
Freedom of religion
|Places of worship / Patrimonial Regime||Religious Education||Military Service/Spiritual attention Armed Forces|
Circular No. 45
Ministerial Instructions N° 1598
Decree Law 2,306
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
Regarding the Church-State relationship, there is a broad regulation that protects and guarantees different dimensions of the right to religious freedom. A greater balance has also been sought in the treatment of the various religious denominations through the National Office of Religious Affairs, an institution attached to the Ministry General Secretariat of the Presidency, whose objective is to represent the government before religious entities.
Concerning social status, Chile is one of the Latin American countries in which the population presents major mistrust of religious organizations and the church. Many point out that this lack of confidence is due to pedophilia scandals, especially within the Catholic Church, and the secular phenomenon that influenced not just the gradual increase of the agnostic and atheistic population in the country but also religious intolerance and progressive attempts to radically separate the church and the state.
It is worth highlighting that although there are cases of discrimination and intolerance against various religious denominations to an extent, there is a known history of attacks against the Christian church, mostly Catholic but also non-Catholic. This was especially evident during the social protests that occurred at the end of 2019, and previously, in 2018 in the attacks by radical Mapuche groups.
A. Hostility to religious expressions by state and non-state actors
The free experience of faith in the country is sometimes challenging. Although there is an important normative protection of religious liberty, in practice, pressure groups, intolerant citizens, and secular groups sometimes supported by state entities or authorities, portray the church, especially the Christian one, as an institution that influences social inequality and discrimination. The Christian doctrine on issues related to life, marriage, and family is considered a violation of the human rights of women and other sexual minorities, such as LGBT groups. In this scenario, non-discrimination and hate speech provisions have led to the sanction of faith-based manifestations; religious intolerance has led to constant mockery, criticism, insults, and other sorts of verbal attacks resulting, in many cases, in intimidation and self-censorship.
This perception of the church became palpable during protests last year as numerous violent attacks and/or acts of vandalism were carried out against Christian temples of worship, especially Catholic temples. This was evidence of a latent phenomenon; one with which particularly the younger generations, the more secularized, seek to eradicate religion and what it represents in society since it is considered to be non-inclusive, unjust, and complicit of social inequalities.
B. Hostility towards religious conversion in indigenous communities
In Chile, of the total national indigenous population, the Mapuche population is the majority. They are located in areas such as Araucanía, Bio Bio, Los Ríos and Los Lagos. These communities have fought for greater recognition and greater autonomy over the years; however, to date the community claim that many of their requests have not been duly addressed by the State. In these communities, there are radical Mapuche groups, among which there are antecedents for taking a violent stance to echo their demands.
Unfortunately, for some radical Mapuches leaders, the church is seen as an accomplice of the State, as an institution that not just took their lands, but also contributed to the loss of their ancestral values and identity through indoctrination. In this sense, their rejection has resulted in arson attacks against Catholic and Protestant churches. This scenario also implies that members of Mapuche communities that converted to Christianity (Catholic or non-Catholic) are at special risk since they are considered traitors of their traditional values and their ethnicity.
Religious Freedom and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Unlike other countries in Latin America, Chile has never imposed a national lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Although the state established a night curfew, quarantines were established locally because of the huge differences in the number of infections among regions.
As of December 2020, as part of moving forward after the lockdowns that were imposed across the country, the Chilean government has instituted a gradual re-opening plan (“step by step”) with different levels of permitted activities at each step. The plan makes a distinction between municipalities, they may move forward or backward in steps, depending on local conditions. The plan also determines whether worship activities can take place, and if so, with how many people. The Chilean government made a distinction between inside and outside worship activities in relation to how many people may attend. In all cases it must be noted that there should be 4 square meters available for every person attending the worship activity. These activities cannot take place on Saturday or Sunday. The step by step plan states the following on worship activities:
- Quarantine: Worship activities cannot be performed
- Transition: Worship activities may take place with up to 10 people inside and up to 20 people in case of an outside activity.
- Preparation: Worship activities make take place with up to 50 people inside and up to 100 people in case of an outside activity.
- Initial opening: Worship activities make take place with up to 100 people inside and up to 200 people in case of an outside activity.
Furthermore, worship activities can take up no more than 2 hours. Attendees must wear facemasks and should maintain a 1-meter distance from each other.
Nevertheless, there was a national discussion concerning religious activities during the pandemic. In several regions, local governments issued orders specifically prohibiting religious activities. In the city of Los Angeles in the Bio-Bio region, health authorities targeted the local Catholic Diocese, sealing up all churches. Religious leaders holding religious services, even following sanitary protocols, were detained and/or fined.
After negative press coverage and public pressure, health officials nevertheless reversed course and withdrew the unlawful orders against worship, allowing church doors to open once more. In addition, legal challenges to this measure were rejected by the courts for being unconstitutional and based on illegal administrative acts.
Violent Incidents Database
The Violent Incident Database (VID) is a service bythe Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America, designed to collect, record, and analyze violent incidents related to violations of religious freedom.
In many cases, the limitations on religious freedom previously explained have led to violent incidents in the country, both against religious leaders or religious groups, and even against places of worship, among others.
The following cases reported on the platform, illustrate the state of religious freedom in the country:
- Valparaiso Cathedral vandalized: A group of individuals forced the entrance of the church, removed benches to use as barricades, and set them on fire. It is the second time that the church has been attacked; the first time was on October 19, during the protests.
- Basilica Heart of Mary desecrated: The Basilica Heart of Mary was attacked by a group of vandals. They smashed windows, climbed onto the roof, and entered the temple through a side door. They immediately damaged the main altar; destroyed and removed some benches, furniture, images of saints and religious clothing; and set fire to barricades they had made in the streets around the temple.
- Three churches burned down in Mapuche areas: Two Catholic Churches in the Púa sector, in the commune of Victoria, were burned to the ground, and an Evangelical Church located in Ercilla was partially damaged. Pamphlets denouncing two trials carried out against Mapuche natives were found in these locations.
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in Chile (2017-2019)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||54||19||19|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||1||1||0|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||25||11||0|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||0||0||0|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||1||0||0|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Country||0||0||0|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2020)||Private sphere||n.d|
|Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016
Pew Research Center (2018)
|Government Restrictions Index||2.2|
|Social Hostilities Index (SHI)||0.8|
|Government religious preference, Religious Characteristics of States Data Project
Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion (2015)
|Government Religious Preference composite score – preferred religion (PRFGRP)||2.2|
|Government Religious Preference composite score – non-preferred religion (NPRFGRP)||2|
|The Main Religion and State Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Official Religion (SAX)||No|
|Official Support (SBX)||Preferred Religion: While the state does not officially endorse a religion, one religion serves unofficially as the state’s religion receiving unique recognition or benefits. Minority religions all receive similar treatment to each other.|
|Religious Discrimination Against Minority Religions (MXX)||7|
|Regulation of and Restrictions on the Majority Religion or All Religions (NXX)||1|
|Specific Types of Religious Support (LXX)||7|
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence against minority religions: General (WSOCDISX2014)||8|
|Minority actions of Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence – Against the majority religion (WMIN2MAJX2014)||0|
|Minority actions of Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence – Against the other minority religions (WMIN2MINX2014)||0|
|Societal regulation of religion (WSOCREGX2014)||0|
|CIRI Human Rights Data Project (2011)||Freedom of religion (NEW_RELFRE)||2|
|Religion and State-Minorities Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Governmental Discrimination (MMXX2014)
|International Religious Freedom Data
The Association of Religion Date Archives (2008)
|Government Regulation of Religion Index (GRI_08)||0.9|
|Government Favoritism of Religion Index (GFI_08)||6.2|
|Social Regulation of Religion Index (MSRI_08)||2.7|
|Religious Freedom Rating
Hudson Institute (2007)
|Religious Freedom Scale||2|
For more data about the indicators click here.
Public Policy Recommendations
- The government should address the Mapuche issue and the historical conflict in the Araucania from a human rights perspective, and also acknowledge the special vulnerability of some religious groups, especially the Christian denomination, in the midst of conflict.
- The State must adopt and follow up on the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights during the last on-site visit to the country, in relation to the State’s obligation to guarantee freedom of religion and worship, and of expression of thought. This is in addition to the adoption of measures to combat and condemn hate speech and discrimination.