- Population: 28,870, 195
- Main Language: Spanish
- Official Religion: None
- Main Religion: Predominantly Christian and majority Catholic Christians
- Other Religions: Buddhists, Ethnoreligionist, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, among others.
- President: Nicolás Maduro (2013- undefined)
The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela states that the country is a democratic and social State of Law and Justice, and has established its supremacy and normative force. In terms of human rights, the Constitution also indicates that international treaties, pacts, and conventions signed and ratified by Venezuela prevail in the internal order insofar as they contain norms on the enjoyment and exercise of human rights more favorable to those contained in the Constitution and in the laws.
Nevertheless, the state apparatus operates according to the guidelines of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, inspired by the leadership and revolutionary ideas of former Commander Hugo Chávez.
In May 2018, Nicolás Maduro was re-elected president of the country through an electoral process with a high level of abstention and without any democratic guarantees. At the national and international level, the result of the elections was considered illegitimate. Due to the irregularities the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself interim president, with the support of around 50 countries, however, this did not influence or cause a transition to a democratic government. Nicolás Maduro remained in power.
In December 2020, also after an electoral process with strong restrictions on political freedoms, a coalition of the ruling Unified Socialist Party (PSUV) and other pro-government parties won the majority of seats in the National Assembly (Parliament), the only force that had been democratically elected in recent years (2015). Due to the evidence of fraud, various governments internationally do not recognize the installation of the new parliament, on the contrary, many continue to support the assembly elected in 2015, despite the turmoil and fragmentation in their ranks.
As a result, Chavismo now controls all the country’s institutions, deepening the erosion of the rule of law and a more hostile territory for the opposition. In this context, the flagrant violation of fundamental rights and political freedoms continues, but also serious violations of basic rights linked to human dignity, such as life, health, and education. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the situation.
Abuses by the security forces, lack of judicial independence, intimidation of human rights defenders and independent media, limitations on the activities of civil society organizations, and the increase in corruption ties between state authorities and between the government and organized crime, have contributed greatly to the worsening of an economic and social crisis that brings as a consequence an unprecedented migratory phenomenon with negative consequences not only for Venezuela but for all of Latin America.
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
The country contemplates only basic guarantees to protect religious freedom. Among them are:
Figure 1: Religious Freedom – Main legal framework
|Freedom of religion||Religious Education||Military Service/Spiritual attention Armed Forces|
|Constitution of the Republic of Venezuela ||
|Agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Venezuela|
Venezuela is a predominantly Christian country, with the Catholic being the most predominant religious group.
The Catholic Church is one of the oldest and most structured institutions in the country, as well as the only one with legal status. Another group with broad representation is the evangelical community, although with a rather heterogeneous composition. A majority evangelical sector makes up the Evangelical Council of Venezuela. Other Christian groups include the Unión Evangélica Pentecostal Venezolana, the Network of Christian Churches of Venezuela, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Evangelical churches have on many occasions requested the same recognition granted to the Catholic Church, above all, the possibility of registering as a Church and not as civil associations.
Other minority religious groups present in the country include Jews, Bahamians, Muslims, Buddhists, and indigenous religions.
The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic guarantees freedom of religion and worship as long as it does not oppose morality, good customs and public order. It guarantees the independence of churches and religious confessions. Similarly, it recognizes the right of parents to choose, in accordance with their convictions, the religious education of their children.
However, the Venezuelan Criminal Code establishes that the minister of any cult who, in the exercise of his functions, treats with public contempt or vilification the institutions, the laws of the republic, or the acts of authority, will be punished with the arrest of one to six months. Additionally, regulations such as the “Law against Hate for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance” are used to establish fines, sanctions, and penalties of up to 20 years in prison for those who promote or commit “hate crimes” with their messages on radio, television, or social networks and is applied arbitrarily to censor any message that criticizes the ruling party. These laws limit freedom of speech, including faith-based manifestations
Although in 2020 there have been few arrests against religious leaders who openly oppose the regime, it is a risk to which they are permanently exposed, especially when they express their rejection of the party, or the measures adopted by the government since such actions can be considered “hate messages” or “contempt for institutions.”
On the other hand, there is a close relationship between the president and some factions of the evangelical church. Provisions in favor of the Evangelical Christian Movement, such as the creation of the First Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela, and the National Pastor Day, among others, can be translated as a form of acceptance towards said denominations, but also of control and manipulation to satisfy political interests.
Among the latest measures taken, it is important to highlight the recent creation of the Vice Presidency of Religious Affairs of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), an office created to strengthen control mainly over non-Catholic groups. The expansion of the “Government Pastoral Councils throughout the national territory” has also been promoted to “integrate” religious groups with local and regional governments.
Concerning interreligious dialogue, in April 2020 was established the Interreligious Social Council of Venezuela, with representatives of Christian Churches, the Jewish community and other social organizations. In turn, the government created the official National Interreligious Council, made up of evangelical groups related to the regime and other ancestral religions.
A. Religious restrictions from totalitarian government control
Chavismo has ruled Venezuela since 1998, first under the command of Hugo Chávez and now his successor Nicolás Maduro. In the last 20 years, the policy of the Bolivarian revolution has been aimed at concentrating power at the expense of democracy and the rule of law, co-opting institutions and repressing the opposition. In this context, sectors that demand new elections or criticize the government’s totalitarian measures have become targets of censorship or intimidation through acts of pressure and violence.
In the country, there is a violent record against religious leaders described as “opponents.” There have been situations involving Christian leaders (Catholic and non-Catholic), in which they have been pressured with arbitrary registration or permit requirements, have been threatened, arbitrarily detained, verbally and physically attacked, and whose property has been vandalized. Religious services have been monitored or violently interrupted for their stance in favor of democracy and respect for human rights.
In addition to the cooptation of the various branches of government, the regime also exercises social control over the population. Faced with poverty and food insecurity resulting from the economic crisis, the crisis in the health sector, education, etc., the state applies social policies as forms of blackmail.
The government provides basic services to the population as long as the citizens validate or legitimize the authorities, either by voting for the party in electoral processes or by not criticizing or protesting against them. The affiliation or affinity of citizens with the party plays a very important role in being considered as beneficiaries of the services offered by the government.
Activities of independent institutions or religious organizations are usually restricted so as not to lose such social control. In this sense, religious associations dedicated to humanitarian aid or assistance, are seen as a threat to the stability of the party and are sometimes punished and prevented from continuing with their work.
In recent months, the crisis caused by COVID-19, added to the existing shortage of food and basic elements, somehow contributed to the activities of faith-based organizations being carried out without as many restrictions as in previous years. To such an extent that for many Venezuelans it has been the only help offered and the one that has allowed them to survive during the pandemic.
However, this does not mean or assure that the relationship between the state and religious groups is harmonious. As long as the activities of religious groups or organizations are related to the opposition or affect the interests of the party, it is highly probable that the cases of censorship and repression will increase.
B. Religious restrictions from anti-religion political ideology (communism)
The government seeks the imposition of communist ideology in the country. In this process, all state and social institutions are forced to follow the party’s guidelines.
On the one hand, the preaching, teaching, and demands made by religious leaders or groups that contradict the core of the socialist system, or the ideology of the Bolivarian revolution, are considered a betrayal that deserves to be sanctioned. In addition, the right of parents to educate their children under their own convictions is also diminished as the government seeks to indoctrinate children and young people in accordance with communist social principles, trying to eradicate all beliefs that contradict the postulates of the regime.
Until recently, this has been most evident in the case of the Catholic Church, as it constantly questions the ideology of the party. The church has experienced restrictions by the government and its supporters, either through physical and verbal attacks against Catholic leaders and/or churches. During 2020, only a few attacks against Christian temples by the regime involved the Bolivarian National Guard and Chavista groups.
In the case of the evangelical church, the situation varies, those who advocate the return of the rule of law are the object of smear campaigns, however religious groups related to or subjected to the party and its ideology are not classified as terrorists or enemies of the nation.
Ongoing cases of anti-Semitism have also been identified. The official and government-controlled media have become a tool for spreading anti-Semitic propaganda.
On the other hand, religion is used as a political instrument. Referring to the Christian doctrine, Chávez is classified as the “Christ of the poor”, the electoral elections are called “Resurrection Day”, among others. An attempt is made to deify the authorities and present them as those who will provide happiness on earth, trying to disrupt to a certain extent, the image of God presented by traditional religious groups. In addition to branding Jesus Christ himself as the greatest socialist in history, Chávez and his revolutionary ideology are presented as religious symbols that must unite the militants.
C. The regulation of religion by organized crime and other non-state groups
Venezuela is considered a narco-state since the regime subsists on the income from organized crime. Rampant corruption in the government elite allows these groups to operate throughout the territory with total impunity. Terror is instilled by State security agents, gangs, paramilitary groups present in Venezuela, and other collectives such as the so-called Integral Defense and Security Committees, etc.; the presence of Colombian guerrillas, such as Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) rebels and National Liberation Army (ELN) members in territories near the border with Colombia must also be included.
These groups have become the arm of repression against dissidents to a greater and lesser extent. Since the government uses these groups to intimidate and subdue the opposition, they also pose a threat to religious leaders known or related to dissidents or government critics, without anywhere for them to turn to for protection.
A phenomenon related to the presence of Colombian guerrillas in the country, especially the ELN, is the indoctrination of children by these criminal groups, especially in rural areas and on the country’s border. Teachers and authorities of various educational institutions are forced to distribute to students brochures with content related to the political motivation, philosophy, and ideology of these groups. Many of them act against their convictions; in order not to become victims of retaliation.
Members of these guerrillas also tried to force a Christian educational institution to become a refuge for migrants at the borders during the COVID-19 pandemic. During 2020, churches and religious leaders were also targeted by violent robberies. In some cases, these robberies have resulted in the death of the victims.
Religious freedom and the COVID-19 pandemic
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:
- Community kitchen volunteer beaten: Pro-government elements brutally beaten to the coordinator of the community kitchen from Casa Padre Torres in the diocese of Los Teques. The hooded men entered the premises, threatened the assistants with a weapon and one of them approached to hit the 68-year-old volunteer. Due to serious aggression, the service was suspended.
- Criminals broke into the Virgen del Valle medical office: The Archdiocese of Ciudad Bolívar reported the theft of equipment, supplies, and medicines from the “Virgen del Valle” medical office, which treat low-income people free of charge. Criminals broke one of the windows of the medical office to enter and steal equipment, supplies, and medicines that had been provided by Cáritas Ciudad Bolívar, solidarity organizations, and donors.
- Priest Gerónimo Sifontes arbitrarily detained: The priest Gerónimo Sifontes, pastor of the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church in Maturín organized the outside visit of the Nazarene. Sifontes said that when a neighbor saw that they placed the altar with a torn flag, she was upset with the priest and reported it to the Defense Operational Zone (Zodi). Officers brought the priest to GNB Zone 51 Command. He was detained for 3 hours.
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in Venezuela (2018-2020)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||7||4||10|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||2||0||1|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||4||6||3|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||1||1||0|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||0||1||0|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Country||3||3||0|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2021)||Private sphere||n.d|
|Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016
Pew Research Center (2018)
|Government Restrictions Index||3.2|
|Social Hostilities Index (SHI)||0.6|
|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)||1.4|
|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)||14|
|Regulation of and Restrictions on the Majority Religion or All Religions (NXX)||5|
|Specific Types of Religious Support (LXX)||8|
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)||2|
|CIRI Human Rights Data Project (2011)||Freedom of religion (NEW_RELFRE)||1|
|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)||2.0|
|Government Favoritism of Religion Index (GFI_08)||8.0|
|Social Regulation of Religion Index (MSRI_08)||3.4|
|Religious Freedom Rating
Hudson Institute (2007)
|Religious Freedom Scale||3|
For more data about the indicators click here.
Public Policy Recommendations
- The Venezuelan government should ratify the American Convention on Human Rights, and recognize the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, as well as reverse its departure from the Organization of American States.
- In the midst of the economic crisis and the humanitarian emergency, the Venezuelan government must stop repressive acts against religious organizations/groups and facilitate their operation, especially when their activities aim to provide essential goods and/or services to the neediest.
- The government should dismantle the Special Actions Forces and other para-state groups that act as agents of control and violence against citizens, including religious leaders known for their rejection of the regime.
- The government should accept and evaluate the various reports made by civil society organizations and the international community regarding the state of human rights in their country, including the right to religious freedom.
- The government must collaborate with the Special Follow-up Mechanism for Venezuela (MESEVE) installed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in order to make more effective use of its protection and monitoring mechanisms for the defense of human rights in the country.