- Population: 49,648,685
- Main Language: Spanish
- Official Religion: None
- Main Religion: Predominantly Christian and majority Catholic
- Other Religions: Buddhists, ethnoreligionist, Hindus, Judaism, Muslims, among others
- Indigenous Population: 4% of the population recognizes itself as indigenous
- President: Iván Duque Márquez (2018-2022)
The 1991 Constitution established a presidential representative democratic republic. Its political organization follows the principles of separation of powers, autonomy of its territorial entities, and democracy. The Colombian constitutional block is made up of the Constitution, the laws issued by the legislative branch, and the treaties signed by the state. All international treaties dealing with human rights are understood to be included in the Constitution.
The national regulatory framework takes into account the recognition and protection of the right to religious freedom. Included are:
Figure 1: Religious Freedom – Main legal framework
|Political participation of religious leaders||Places of worship / Patrimonial Regime||Religious Education||Military Service/Spiritual attention Armed Forces||Religious Marriage||Church-State Relationship||Freedom of religion|
|Concordat between the republic of Colombia and theHoly See|
|Political Constitution of Colombia|
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
Colombia continues to be mostly Christian. Although the Catholic religion has a greater number of adherents, religious diversification has influenced the presence not only of other Christian denominations but also of other religions in the country.
The dynamics of religious freedom in Colombia are, to a large degree, comparable to Mexico’s, with the biggest difference being that the state regulation of religion is much less severe. In the adoption of the 1991 Constitution (article 19, ratified by the 1994 religious freedom law), the separation between the Catholic Church and the state was implemented, and religious freedom was fully recognized. The available data on Colombia collected by the Religion and State Project, points out that government involvement in religion is limited, especially in comparison to Mexico.
At first glance, and taking into account the regulatory framework that has been implemented over time, including the Comprehensive Public Policy of Religious Freedom and Cults (2017), the search for a treatment according to the status of the various religious denominations, whether they subscribe to an agreement, and whether they are registered or not, etc. is evident. Nevertheless, beyond the observation of religious freedom at the national level, the different sub-national realities and contexts that can affect those with active religious behavior cannot be ignored.
Currently, religious leaders and/or religious organizations face different kinds of pressure and violence, either because of restrictions on their religious expressions, hostilities within indigenous communities, or because of the pre-post peace agreement stage of violence, as will be discussed below.
A. Hostility to religious expressions by state and non-state actors
In Colombia, the participation of religious leaders/groups is twofold. On the one hand, the government has increasingly involved religious groups in social issues, especially because it considers them to be indispensable actors in achieving the implementation of peace agreements in the most neglected areas of the country. Consequently, religious groups – especially Christians – occupy an active role in their respective communities and often become the link to the authorities.
However, the expression of religious beliefs, points of views, and teachings from the same religious groups, is constantly under scrutiny. Usually, religious messages – especially those related to the issues of life, family, marriage, and binary sex, among others – are portrayed as discriminatory and intolerant. In this scenario, some government authorities, and secular and intolerant groups seek to censor the freedom of expression of confessional actors, and particularly those who profess the Christian faith, both in the public and private sphere, under the pretext of church and state separation and non-discriminatory provisions.
B. Hostility towards religious conversion in indigenous communities
In the atypical situation of the indigenous reserves, religious freedom for minorities is not guaranteed. Converts to Christianity are seen as a threat to the power of local fiefs and indigenous ancestral traditions and are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses. Because of the far-reaching self-governing rights of indigenous reserves, it is nearly impossible for the Colombian state to guarantee religious freedom.
Within indigenous communities, those who do not follow syncretic practices are seen as traitors and a danger to the stability of the village. They can be exposed by their nuclear and extended family, either by loyalty or fear of the tribal leaders of the area.
In this context, converts to Christianity in indigenous communities face all forms of harassment and discrimination, including exclusion from basic social services, arbitrary arrests, threats, forced labor, sexual harassment, and even violence. Faith-based schools are barely tolerated. Religious freedom is also very much restricted, as any religious activity is considered a threat to the political power of indigenous leaders. This can even lead to the forced displacement of entire families or the demand to leave the community.
C. The regulation of religion by organized crime
Large areas of the country continue to be under the control of criminal organizations, drug cartels, revolutionaries, and paramilitary groups. In the context of generalized impunity, all inhabitants of Colombia are suffering conflict that has lasted for decades, but actively practicing believers are specifically vulnerable to such hostilities. Notwithstanding the peace agreement that was adopted between the Colombian government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in 2016, the country is not becoming safer.
The peace agreement has not been implemented in the way it was expected. On the contrary, it has suffered major setbacks, such as the return to war by FARC rebels and the strengthening of other criminal groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), and FARC dissident factions that did not accept the peace process. They have taken control of the areas previously controlled by FARC, operating within a context of impunity, corruption, anarchy, drug wars, and structural violence. Within such a framework, actively practicing believers are a vulnerable group that, because of its mere presence, constitutes a threat to the hegemony of criminal organizations. Active religious practice represents an alternative way to behave in society, especially for young people, which makes churches a direct competitor of criminal organizations.
The International Religious Freedom report by the US State Department has also stressed the impact of organized crime on Christians in Colombia. “Justapaz continued to report threats from illegal armed groups and forced displacements of clergy and parishioners. Justapaz said pastors in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia Department, received threats from illegal armed groups that forced them to conclude their pastoral activities no later than 5:00 p.m., limiting the pastors’ ability to perform their religious duties in the community. Justapaz expressed concern that illegal armed groups were attempting to recruit minors with financial incentives, and that rival groups were in turn placing unofficial curfews on potential recruits, which restricted the Mennonite Church’s ability to conduct youth activities in Choco Department.” (2018).
Given the special roles performed by religious leaders/groups—human rights defenders, advocates of freedom and justice, promoters of denunciations of crimes or alliances between authorities and criminals—, criminal groups threaten and harass them relentlessly with the aim of taking control of illicit businesses in the most neglected areas. Intimidation and submission through violent means including killings, extortions, kidnapping, death threats, and forced displacement, among others, are avenues they pursue to put a stop to religious activities and gain social control over the population in territories disputed by the organized armed groups in the country. This occurs especially in the areas of Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, Guaviare, Putumayo, Córdoba, Valle del Cauca (particularly Buenaventura), Antioquia (Bajo Cauca and Urabá), and Norte de Santander (Catatumbo), not to mention the borders with Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama.
 It incorporates not only the religious identity approach, recognizing the proper ways in which each religious entity and its organizations define themselves in relation to society and the State, but also the religious institutionality approach. Under which the legal expression of religious entities is strengthened and evidenced to guarantee ownership and effective enjoyment of the collective rights of religious freedom, and others according to the scope of action, participation, and contributions to the common good. Ministry of Interior (2017). Comprehensive Public Policy of Religious Freedom and Cults. Technical document. Retrieved from https://asuntosreligiosos.mininterior.gov.co/sites/default/files/documento_tecnico_politica_publica_integral_de_libertad_religiosa_y_de_cultos.pdf
Religious freedom and the COVID-19 pandemic
Due to coronavirus, in March 2020 the Colombian president announced a state of emergency and ordered a lockdown. The national quarantine in Colombia officially ended in September and was one of the longest in the world, nonetheless, the health emergency in Colombia has been extended to the 28th of February, 2021. In December 2020, Colombia entered a “selective Isolation” phase until February 2021, which prioritized the tracing of contacts, infections, and suspects and the reactivation of economic and social life.
Despite the lockdown restrictions that were enforced across the country, religious activities were allowed as long as they were related to institutional emergency and humanitarian aid programs. In all other cases, religious activities, as they were not considered essential, were included in the list of activities not allowed for the duration of the state of emergency. At the beginning of July, the government announced that it will launch a pilot testing the reopening of churches and other religious institutions. The pilot was to be held in municipalities with low numbers of coronavirus infections. The pilot would last for 15 days and religious buildings would be allowed to receive up to 50 people as long they would comply with the precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. A second pilot followed, allowing religious buildings to use up to 35% of their capacity, as long as the same precautionary measures were met.
In April 2020, Amnesty International warned about the situation of indigenous communities: “Indigenous Peoples in Colombia are on high alert. The government is implementing preventive measures for COVID-19 in the country without adequately guaranteeing their fundamental rights. Historically they have not had access to health, water, or food and in the context of this pandemic, this situation is much more serious because they do not have the sanitary and social conditions to deal adequately with COVID-19”.
In this context, restrictions on religious freedom within indigenous communities have increased since local authorities have been focused on managing the pandemic. Not to mention that the distribution of medicines or medical care coordinated by the tribal authorities many times left aside those converted, for being considered “traitors.”
Furthermore, the number of violent conflicts in Colombia increased, fueled by the pandemic. After the lockdown was imposed, the income that criminal groups earn from extortion dropped as businesses were closed. This meant that those groups had to adapt to generate money from other sources. Criminal groups also take advantage of the pandemic as a means to increase their control over certain areas. They have imposed curfews, lockdowns, and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, worsening the conditions of religious leaders/groups—human rights defenders who fail to comply with these regulations. They have been threatened, attacked, or even killed.
Violent Incidents Database
The Violent Incident Database (VID) is a service by the 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:
- Cathedral attacked during political march: During a political march, intolerant citizens threw objects and painted the walls of one of the most symbolic churches in the country, the Primada Cathedral.
- Priest Raul Media threatened with death and forced out of his city: The Bishop of Caldas in the Colombian department of Antioquia, Mons. César Balbín Tamayo, ordered the temporary departure of Priest Raúl Mejía Valencia, pastor of San Antonio de Padua in the municipality of Armenia Mantequilla, to guarantee his safety after he received death threats from criminal groups.
- Christian Indigenous Governor murdered: The indigenous governor Cristina Bautista was murdered in Cauca. She professed Christianity and was the leader of the United Pentecostal Church of Colombia. She was murdered along with other social leaders, who with their message of peace and the fight against violence, represented trouble to the criminal factions operating in the area.
- Christian Indigenous woman sexually harassed: A young indigenous woman was sexually harassed because of her faith. The community threatened to force her to marry a member of the indigenous community as a way of pressuring her to embrace syncretic community practices again.
|(Attempts) to destroy Churches or Christian buildings||0||0||1||2||0||0||2||15|
|Closed Churches or Christian buildings||0||2||151||11||0||0||0||3|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||1||39||545||206||12||3||9||163|
|Attacked Christian houses||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||3|
|Attacked Christian shops or businesses||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||34||173||119||1||18||91|
|Forced to leave Country||0||38||6||0||0||0||0||2|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2019)||Private sphere||7.9|
|Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016
Pew Research Center (2018)
|Government Restrictions Index (GRI)||3.1|
|Social Hostilities Index (SHI)||2.3|
|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)||2.7|
|Government Religious Preference composite score – non-preferred religion (NPRFGRP)||1.3|
|The Main Religion and State Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Official Religion (SAX)||No|
|Official Support (SBX)||Multi-Tiered Preferences 1: one religion is clearly preferred by state, receiving the most benefits, there exists one or more tiers of religions which receive less benefits than the preferred religion but more than some other religions.|
|Religious Discrimination Against Minority Religions (MXX)||2|
|Regulation of and Restrictions on the Majority Religion or All Religions (NXX)||2|
|Specific Types of Religious Support (LXX)||6|
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence against minority religions: General (WSOCDISX2014)||5|
|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)||1|
|Societal regulation of religion (WSOCREGX2014)||1|
|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)||3.1|
|Government Favoritism of Religion Index (GFI_08)||7.7|
|Social Regulation of Religion Index (MSRI_08)||6.8|
|Religious Freedom Rating
Hudson Institute (2007)
|Religious Freedom Scale||5|
For more data about the indicators click here.
Public Policy Recommendations
- The international community should assist in training officials in the Colombian authorities to help them implement effective policies that protect the human rights of the indigenous population without undermining their traditional autonomy, self-determination, and identity. Additionally, it should promote and invest in programs on tolerance and group identity so that converts from traditional religions can still be considered part of their indigenous communities despite the change of faith or belief. By doing so, the living conditions of those members who have converted to Christianity can be improved.
- The international community should urgently press the Colombian government to prioritize and investigate cases of killings of Human Rights Defenders, including faith leaders, and to speed up peace negotiations with the remaining guerrilla groups in the country so that they relinquish control of marginalized areas, allowing citizens in these regions – especially Christians – to live their lives without fear.
- The International Community should consider funding research programs to analyze cases of religious freedom violations, to ensure the protection of faith leaders and other faith adherents in the current peacebuilding process in Colombia. At the same time, The UN Security Council should explicitly and fully recognize that faith leaders are Human Rights Defenders and should acknowledge the specific vulnerability that comes from being a figure of prominence in their communities. In this context, the UN Security Council should mandate the UN Verification Mission in Colombia to promote and support programs aimed at protecting faith leaders and their families from the violence of illegal armed groups and criminal organizations.