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.
Regarding the right of religious freedom, the Constitution contemplates only basic guarantees. 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|
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
The right to religious freedom is recognized in the federal regulatory framework, although with a limited scope. In practice, regulations approved by the General Assembly related to the punishment of any content that “questions the legitimately constituted authority” limit freedom of speech, including faith-based manifestations. Especially when they express rejection or opposition to the party, or to the measures adopted by the government.
In this context, tensions are particularly evident between the government and the Catholic Church, as this has been the most outspoken institution against state corruption and human rights violations. Catholic religious leaders and/or groups known or related to opponents of the regime, as well as those who provide humanitarian assistance, struggle with pressure and harassment.
The close relationship the president has with some factions of the evangelical church is well-known. In addition, provisions in favor of the Evangelical Christian Movement, such as the creation of the First Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela, and a National Pastor’s Day, among others, can be translated as a form of control and manipulation to satisfy political interests. The use of religion as an instrument has been commonly used, especially by Nicolas Maduro, to legitimize himself and stay in power. Among the latest measures taken, it is important to highlight the recent creation of the Vice Presidency for Religious Affairs of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). This is an office created to strengthen control mainly over non-Catholic groups. The expansion of the “Pastoral Councils of Government throughout the national territory” has also gone ahead in order to integrate religious groups with the local and regional governments.
A. Religious restrictions from anti-religion political ideology (communism)
The government seeks the imposition of the communist ideology in the country. In this process, all state and social institutions are forced to follow the party’s guidelines. An attempt is even being made for the activities of religious denominations in the country to follow the same direction. In this sense, 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. Additionally, the right of parents to educate their children under their own convictions is also diminished since the government seeks to indoctrinate children and young people according to communist social principles, trying to eradicate all beliefs that contradict the regime postulates.
This has been more evident in the case of the Catholic Church as it constantly questions the party’s ideology. While so far, this church has experienced retaliation by the government and its sympathizers, either through physical and verbal attacks against Catholic leaders and/or churches, continuous cases of anti-semitism have also been witnessed. The official and government-controlled media have become a tool for disseminating antisemitic propaganda.
B. Religious restrictions from totalitarian government control
Leaders of the socialist party have co-opted different branches of the state to stay in power, even when this has meant the breakdown of the rule of law and the abandonment of democracy as a form of government. In this context, anyone demanding new elections, criticizing the government’s totalitarian measures, and/or denouncing the transgression of human rights in the country, has become the target of retaliation. Christian religious leaders, mostly – but not only – from the Catholic Church have struggled with arbitrary registration requirements, threats, arbitrary detentions, property vandalism, and other verbal and physical attacks.
Another way for the government to stay in power is through the control of public/basic services. On many occasions, the State grants them according to the party´s affiliation or affinity to the beneficiaries. In this sense, religious organizations, especially Christian ones, dedicated to humanitarian aid or assistance to the poorest, are seen as a threat to the stability of the party and are sometimes punished and prevented from continuing with their work.
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.
One phenomena related to the presence of Colombian guerrillas in the country, especially ELN, is the indoctrination of children by these criminal groups, especially in rural areas and on the border of the country. Teachers and authorities from various educational institutions are forced to distribute pamphlets with content related to their political motivation, philosophy, and ideology to students. Some of them must act against their convictions; otherwise, they become victims of retaliation.
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:
- Pastor P.R. Garcia threatened with death: Members of the ELN in the country threatened P.R Garcia, pastor of the San Lucia church, with death. Members of these groups are marking the houses of Venezuelan opposition leaders with the following phrase: “Death is near and we will not rest until Venezuela has been liberated and the revolution has come.
- Pastor Jose Albeiro Vivas arrested: José Albeiro Vivas, a pastor of a Christian church and an active Major in the Venezuelan Military Aviation advertised a March for Jesus that he was coordinating: “Venezuela, your time of freedom has arrived”. He declared the spiritual freedom of Venezuela, which was enough for the officials of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGIM) to arrest him. The officer faces investigation for the crimes of misuse of decoration, badges, military titles, and disobedience.
- Temple of Our Lady of Fatima attacked by the GNB: The Bolivarian National Guard attacked Our Lady of Fatima parish during mass. The incident left at least one of the worshippers wounded, after two armed motorists stormed the precinct followed by “a horde of 40 National Guards” who threw tear gas.
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in Venezuela (2017-2019)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||3||7||4|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||0||2||0|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||4||4||6|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||0||1||1|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||0||0||1|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Country||0||3||3|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2020)||Private sphere||3.8|
|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.