After 12 years of Civil War, the country has been laying the foundations to consolidate a republican, democratic, and representative government.
The regulation of fundamental rights was established in the 1983 Constitution, significantly reformed in application of the 1992 Peace Accords, through which respect for political pluralism and the “unrestricted” defense of Human Rights was addressed.
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.
In this context, 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|
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
El Salvador is predominantly Christian, with a majority of Catholic members. Given the strong influence of religious leaders and religious 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.
Furthermore, religious minorities, including the Evangelical branch, demand the same Constitutional recognition given to the Catholic Church. This request has not been granted; nonetheless, there is a close relationship between protestant leaders and some government officials. This is a situation that lobbies and ideological groups, as well as secular groups, constantly criticize and question.
In addition, considering that the current president is the son of the founder of the first mosque in El Salvador, some wonder if this could imply any affinity with the Muslim religion that could harm other religious denominations in the country. However, there are no concrete signs in this regard.
Finally, it is worth highlighting that in recent years, various attempts have been made to control the impact of gangs (maras) in the country. However, both the cells of the Mara Salvatrucha, and gang 18, are still present in many of the municipalities of the fourteen departments of the country. Much of the ineffectiveness of the programs is due to corruption and impunity networks that involve authorities at all levels.
The control exercised by these criminal groups has contributed to the proliferation of violence and insecurity, especially affecting anyone who questions their authority and represents a risk to their interests, including leaders and religious groups.
A. 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 views in the public arena are often criticized and questioned, especially on issues related to the defense of life from conception, binary sex, and marriage.
B. The regulation of religion by organized crime
In territories completely governed by gangs- in which these groups become de facto authorities – religious leaders who, inspired by their faith, seek to denounce corruption or criminal activities, are seen as elements to be eradicated as they can jeopardize the stability of the gang structure. Likewise, religious leaders or groups with connections, or that provide support to authorities that fight against networks of corruption, become targets of reprisals.
Leaders and/or religious groups who, faithful to their vocation, do not comply, or who try to influence other members of society so that they do not get involved with the gangs, risk their own safety and that of their families, potentially exposing themselves to various forms of violence, such as murder, death threats, kidnappings, and extortion.
Religious Freedom and the Covid-19 pandemic
In March 2020, as the first case of coronavirus was identified in the country, president Nayib Bukele imposed a curfew, followed by a strict lockdown which limited all movements in the country. It was only in June that the government allowed for the reopening of the food sector, drug stores, and gas stations.
Due to strict lockdown, all religious gatherings were prohibited. It was in July when the government presented a plan for the gradual reopening of the country. The reopening of places of worship was not part of the first phase of the plan, it would take up until September before the first worship locations were allowed to open their doors again, as part of the third phase.
In the country, the lockdown measures were enforced by the police, the army, and criminal groups. These groups possess high amounts of power across the country, nonetheless, it is reported that they have taken advantage of the pandemic to increase the power they have over vulnerable communities. In some regions, they have taken over the role of the de facto government by acting as enforcers of curfews, quarantine, and other measures to prevent the spread of the disease, violently punishing those who violate these rules.
The pressure on the activities carried out by religious groups intensified since they could only mobilize under the authorization and control of criminal groups, even to bring social aid. This, coupled with the neglect of public safety and the authorities’ approach largely directed at managing the health emergency and the economic crisis, contributed to the increased vulnerability of religious leaders in areas co-opted by gangs.
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:
- Teachers cause Ash Wednesday cross controversy: Teachers from the Liceo Frances, a school in San Salvador, asked for the Ash Wednesday cross to be erased from pupils’ foreheads when they came to classes after the Ash Wednesday Catholic mass. According to a follow-up report on 3 March 2017, school officials apologized to the parents and promised to investigate the motives behind this incident.
- Pastor flees after death-threats: A pastor and his family had to flee their home in Apopa due to continual death-threats by “Barrio 18” gang members. The gang had been targeting him for speaking out against their criminal activities and for accusing leaders of the local council of collusion.
- Salvadoran priest assassinated during Holy Week: Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez and his companions were stopped on the road by masked men. After robbing them they asked the priest to get out of the car, made him walk 50 meters, and then fatally shot him. Local newspapers said the priest had been threatened by gangs and that he had changed his telephone number after the threats.
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in El Salvador (2017-2019)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||0||4||1|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||0||0||0|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||1||2||2|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||0||0||0|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||1|
|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||2.0|
|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 religious behavior as a special category of vulnerable people in contexts of conflict and/or violence. To do so, it could request the production and availability of information on this subject 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.