- Population: 6,453,553
- Main Language: Spanish
- Official Religion: None
- Main Religion: Predominantly Christian and majority Catholic Christians
- Other Religions: Buddhists, ethnoreligious, Hindus, Judaism, Muslims, among others
- President: Nayib Bukele (2019-2023)
After 12 years of Civil War, the country has tried to lay the foundations to consolidate a republican, democratic and representative government.
The regulation of fundamental rights was established in the 1983 Constitution, which was significantly reformed under the application of the 1992 Peace Accords. These agreements addressed respect for political pluralism and the “unrestricted” defense of Human Rights.
Regarding the Constitutional bloc, we must consider the Constitution, the law, and the international treaties signed by El Salvador. In the case of conflict between the treaty and the law, the treaty will prevail.
During the government of the traditional parties in power for the last three decades, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), various State institutions have been involved in serious corruption scandals, a situation that has seriously weakened the rule of law in the country.
Nayib Bukele, current president and representative of the New Ideas party broke the traditional bipartisanship in the country, however, during his tenure, various local and international organizations pointed out that different government actions have put democracy at risk. For instance, the irruption to the Legislative Assembly demanding the approval of the budget for the implementation of his security plan, or the failure to comply with the Constitutional Court orders demanding respect for human rights in the application of confinement measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, among others.
This approach, increasingly branded as authoritarian, has contributed to the continuing violation of human rights by the police and military, institutions that are constantly accused of committing abuses against the civilian population. Similarly, journalists or media critical of the government have been intimidated when they have tried to investigate cases of corruption.
Until a few months ago, the parliament was made up of an opposition majority, which caused conflicts between the executive branch and the legislative and judicial branches. However, in the legislative elections held in February 2021, around 55 deputies affiliated with the ruling New Ideas party and 6 members of the allied party Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA) were elected. That is, 61 seats in the Legislative Assembly in favor of the ruling party.
In practice, this means a qualified majority in congress, which translates into broad legislative support for President Nayib Bukele’s agenda and the possibility of the president to appoint one-third of the justices to the Supreme Court of Justice, appoint members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, appoint the attorney general or the attorney for the defense of human rights, among others.
This concentration of parliamentary control is a situation that worries those who observe signs of an increasingly weakened democracy in the country.
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
The right to religious freedom is protected by the Constitution, as follows:
Figure 1: Religious Freedom – Main legal framework
|Church-State Relationship||Freedom of religion||Places of worship / Patrimonial Regime||Political participation of religious leaders||Religious education||Military Service/Spiritual attention Armed Forces|
|Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador||Art. 26||Art. 25||Art. 231||Art. 82||Art. 55||Art. 215|
El Salvador is predominantly Christian, with a majority of Catholic members. Religious minorities, including the evangelical branch, demand the same recognition granted to the Catholic Church. A bill has even been presented so that the Evangelical Christian Churches of El Salvador have legal personality recognized by the Constitution.
On the other hand, the free exercise of all religions is guaranteed with the only limits imposed by morality and public order. Ministers of any religion are prohibited from belonging to political parties or popularly elected positions. And, the preferential right of parents to choose the education of their children is recognized.
Among some of the religious groups with the greatest presence in the public space, we find the Ecumenical Forum of Churches, made up of the Lutheran, Episcopal Anglican, Reformed Calvinist, Emmanuel Baptist, and Catholic churches and the Table of Historic Churches of El Salvador. These groups, on their own initiative, have active participation in the social and political affairs of the country; they issue recommendations to the president or various authorities/institutions on issues related to environmental law, human rights, education, security, health crisis, etc. and they even coordinate initiatives with community leaders to act as observers in electoral processes.
The current president Nayib Bukele has demonstrated on more than one occasion his approach especially to the Christian Church (Catholic and non-Catholic). He decreed May 24, 2020 as the “National Day of Prayer” and has repeatedly hinted that God is with him and with the people. He has also publicly acknowledged the help offered by the Catholic Church to the Salvadoran population, both during the pandemic and during the storms that hit the country last May.
Given the strong influence of religious leaders and groups in the public sphere, some have pointed out that in the country there is no real separation between religion and State, and that, on the contrary,
El Salvador is one of the most conservative countries in Latin America. This is a situation that radical secular and ideological pressure groups constantly criticize and question
A. The regulation of religion by organized crime
The criminal groups with presence in almost all the municipalities of El Salvador are the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 and the factions of Barrio 18.
These gangs exercise de facto authority in their communities through a climate of terror. They control the social and economic life, including the political life of the citizens living in their territories. Extortion is one of its main sources of financing, also affecting those in charge of temples or religious leaders who sometimes allocate part of the tithes or alms to pay for extortion, “rent”, “security” or “permits to operate.”
The mobilizations inside and outside the territory of each gang, as well as the activities or businesses that are carried out in the area, must have the authorization of the leader. Anyone who does not comply with the imposed rules is exposed, like his family, to gang violence. The church is also obliged to comply with these regulations under threats of retaliation.
The gang dynamics with some religious groups in the country are ambivalent. On the one hand, there is an affinity between the members of the gangs with the evangelical churches, especially neo-Pentecostals. In these churches, gang members find a structure or sense of belonging similar to that offered by the gang. In the same way, it is the place where those who decide to stop their criminal practices do not feel stigmatized.
In that sense, it is possible that these evangelical churches hold religious services with a large presence of gang members. Members of the gang or community can even be forced to participate in church activities accepted by the gang leader.
However, the activities of the church will always be subject to control. As long as the teachings or work of the church do not align or openly contradict the interests of the gangs, do not comply with the rules of the territory, or put their stability or their ability to recruit young people at risk, these leaders may be threatened, displaced and killed.
Similarly, socially or politically active religious leaders, who denounce corruption or criminal activities, are seen as elements to be eradicated since they can endanger the stability of the gang structure. Likewise, religious leaders or groups with connections, or who provide support to authorities fighting corruption networks, become targets of retaliation.
Even though members of the gangs can lead a more active religious life and gradually move away from criminal life at the hands of an evangelical church, this does not imply their total freedom. On many occasions, they continue under the surveillance of their gangs of origin.
B. Hostility to religious expressions by state and non-state actors
In El Salvador, we encounter sexual minorities such as LGBT groups, radical feminists and secular groups that, while demanding the incorporation of their requests in the public policies of the country, portray religious leaders and groups, especially Christians, fundamentalist groups, and transgressors of minorities and women’s rights.
In this context, faith-based points of view in the public arena are often criticized and questioned.
Religious freedom and the COVID-19 pandemic
In March 2020, when the country’s first coronavirus case was identified, President Nayib Bukele announced a curfew, followed by a strict blockade that limited all movements in the country. To demand compliance with these norms, the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Armed Forces carried out intimidating actions and abuses against the civilian population.
In the context of the pandemic, the Supreme Court of El Salvador repealed executive decrees ordering mandatory home quarantine and the national state of emergency. On the grounds of stopping violations of the basic rights of the Salvadoran population, both the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court make efforts to prevent extensions of the state of emergency, the confiscation of vehicles, arbitrary arrests for allegedly not complying with the quarantine orders, and other abuses that arose in the midst of the emergency measures.
These efforts were classified by the president as a violation of the rights to health and life, deteriorating the political conflict between the executive and the legislative and judicial powers.
In January 2021, despite Nayib Bukele’s veto for reasons of unconstitutionality, the “Transitional Special Law to Contain theCovid-19 Disease Pandemic” (LegislativeDecreeNo. 757) entered into force until 23 September 2021.
This law states that epidemic areas subject to health control cannot lead to the suspension of fundamental rights, in particular the right to freedom of movement. Similarly, quarantine measures may not be widely ordered, but only to specific individuals infected with the COVID-19 virus, always prioritizing home quarantine measures. This legislation appears to be an attempt to prevent the repetition of Bukele’s strict measures as in the beginning of the pandemic.
In this process, it is important to note that at first and due to the strict closure, all religious meetings or face-to-face religious services were prohibited, however since the end of August 2020, by order of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, the reactivation of various activities was allowed. As a result, activities related to religious services and the reopening of temples were authorized.
To date, all kinds of religious activities can be carried out in person, although following health and security protolocos, such as mandatory use of masks and social distancing, among others.
This situation varies in areas co-opted by gangs and other illegal groups as the pandemic reinforced criminal dynamics, particularly affecting religious leaders and communities.
These groups have a great deal of power across the country, however, the conditions and effects of the pandemic at the economic, social, and political levels contributed to these groups increasing their de facto power over vulnerable communities. The authorities’ focus primarily on managing the health emergency contributed and still contributes to increasing the vulnerability of religious leaders in gang-co-opted areas.
Despite the flexibility of the government measures, gangs continue to act as enforcers of curfews, quarantine, or other measures to prevent the spread of the disease, violently punishing those who violate these rules. The interest of the maras in imposing confinement measures on their own, under penalty of violent sanctions, also responds to the avoidance of the contagion of their members, because, in their view, their care in hospitals is not guaranteed in the same way as to other citizens.
In this context, pressure on the activities carried out by religious groups has intensified as criminal groups control all movements in their territories, including the humanitarian assistance activities of religious groups, which often depend on the authorization of the maras or the payment of extortion. Access to rival gang territories is often impossible and even evangelization for young people within the territories is monitored or banned so as not to detract from their ranks. Religious leaders who do not comply with the rules dictated by the maras are at risk of threats against them and their families, they are even exposed to violent killings.
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:
- Father Ricardo Cortéz assassinated: The priest Cortéz was intercepted and shot to death while on his way to the city of Santiago de María, in the department of Usulután. He was rector of the San Óscar Arnulfo Romero seminary and parish priest of the town of San Francisco Chinamequita. He was dedicated to the training and teaching of seminarians.
- Pastor Eliseo Salomón Erroa killed: Eliseo Salomón pastor of the Ebenezer church was assassinated while doing his preaching work. Some sources indicate that the pastor was evangelizing a friend when two people appeared on a motorcycle and were shot eight times.
- Parish of San Vicente desecrated: In the sanctuary of the chapel “human excrement” was spilled. It was described as a sacrilege by the religious authorities
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in El Salvador (2018-2020)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||4||1||2|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||0||0||0|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||2||2||1|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||0||0||3|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||0||0||6|
|Forced to leave Home||0||1||0|
|Forced to leave Country||0||0||13|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2021)||Private sphere||6.6|
|Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016
Pew Research Center (2018)
|Government Restrictions Index (GRI)||2.0|
|Social Hostilities Index (SHI)||0.1|
|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)||1.6|
|Government Religious Preference composite score – non-preferred religion (NPRFGRP)||1.6|
|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)||5|
|Regulation of and Restrictions on the Majority Religion or All Religions (NXX)||9|
|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)||0|
|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)||0.8|
|Government Favoritism of Religion Index (GFI_08)||2.8|
|Social Regulation of Religion Index (MSRI_08)||0.7|
|Religious Freedom Rating
Hudson Institute (2007)
|Religious Freedom Scale||n.d|
For more data on our indicators click here.
Public Policy Recommendations
- The government should recognize and identify religious leaders/groups with active participation in their communities, as a special category of vulnerable people in contexts of conflict and/or violence. For this, they must request the production and availability of information on this issue not only from national and international civil society organizations but also from the corresponding Salvadoran state entities, in order to fully comply with the national and international obligations assumed by the state.
- The international community, especially the Organization of American States, must incorporate in the Country Report of El Salvador the analysis of the situation of the human rights of religious leaders, in order to highlight the context of insecurity to which they are particularly exposed, and identify prevention/care measures that guarantee the safeguarding of their liberties.
- The international community must pay special attention to the mechanisms of violence prevention and the resilience of religious communities, especially in high-crime communities.
- As part of the security strategy, the Salvadoran government must evaluate public prevention policies aimed at children and young people in the red zones of the country in order to address the problem of poverty and violence from the roots. The current “iron fist” policy against gangs, far from solving the problem, contributes to a climate of greater insecurity.