On 17 September 2015, the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of House Committee on Foreign Affairs of the United States Congress held a hearing on “Freedom of Expression in the Americas.” Dennis P. Petri was invited to witness at this congressional hearing. This is the video recording of his verbal testimony (starts after minute 15). His written testimony can be downloaded here. A transcript of the verbal testimony is included below.
Honorable members of Congress, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Actively practicing Christians
The majority of all Latin American citizens is formally Christian, but actively practicing Christians – Christians who regularly attend church – are a minority. This minority is specifically vulnerable to suffer human rights abuses.
No issues with the legal framework
As far as the legal framework is concerned, there are no major obstacles to religious freedom in the vast majority of Latin American countries, with the exception of Cuba. From the perspective of human security, the enforcement of religious freedom, however, does pose challenges.
Restrictions on religious freedom from a human security perspective
Religious freedom in Latin America is restricted by three dynamics. The first is organized crime. The main feature of organized crime is the creation of a climate of impunity, anarchy and corruption, in which actively practicing Christians are vulnerable because their behavior – based on the biblical worldview – is contrary to the greed of organized crime. Of course, organized crime affects societies as a whole, and not only Christians but actively practicing Christians possess a specific vulnerability for suffering human rights abuses.
The targeting of Christians by criminal organizations is generally motivated by a combination of two elements. Firstly, people involved in organized crime view Christians who openly oppose their activities as a threat, especially when Christians get involved in social programs or in politics. Secondly, criminal organizations know that the Christian faith is not compatible with their ideals.
They fear Christians will influence members of the community or even members of their own organizations to oppose their activities.
All denominations of Christianity can become victims of organized crime, though it affects mostly the more outspoken Christians who fulfill leadership positions.
Let me mention a few examples on Mexico.
In many states of Mexico, violence is pervasive but affects actively practicing Christians to a high degree. Churches and other Christian institutions are often seen as revenue centers by drug cartels. The extortion of priests, pastors and Christian business-owners is commonplace. Attending church services increases the threat of kidnapping, and youths are particularly at risk of being recruited into gangs. Social initiatives are also faced with major threats, especially initiatives that enter the area of influence of criminal organizations. Drug rehabilitation programs or youth work are a direct threat to the market and influence of drug cartels, and therefore increase the vulnerability of Christians engaging in these programs.
From personal research on the ground I can confirm that that there is widespread and sophisticated surveillance and monitoring by members of drug cartels within churches.
Now referring to Colombia, in many parts of the country, similarly to Mexico, organized crime is responsible for demonstrable threats to certain forms of religious behavior.
Hostilities against conversion to Christianity in indigenous areas
The second dynamic that restricts religious freedom is the presence of hostilities against conversion to Christianity in indigenous areas, especially in Mexico and Colombia. Converts to Christianity are regularly threatened, excluded from access to basic social services, beaten and displaced by tribal leaders. They are not given sufficient protection by their governments.
The third dynamic that restricts religious freedom is communism. In Cuba, pressure on Christians continues in the form of harassment, strict surveillance and discrimination, including the occasional imprisonment of leaders. Religious practice is monitored and all church services are infiltrated by spies.
In Venezuela, the pressure on Christians is subtle, but any organization which is influential is restricted by the government. For years, the Venezuelan administration has attempted to shut down private Catholic education in favor of public schools.
In Bolivia, through administrative and bureaucratic obstacles, Christians are also restricted in their freedom to exercise their right to worship as well as freedom of expression.
Your excellences, I recommend the following:
- I recommend that the specific vulnerability of actively practicing Christians is taken into consideration in US foreign policy and by the US Congress in performing its oversight function. The US Government should make the reduction of risks for Christians caused by organized crime an integral part of its foreign policy.
- Special attention should be given to the issue of structural violence, impunity and corruption, as Mexico and other Latin American states are not always diligent enough in terms of investigating issues related to violations of freedom of religion and expression.
- The US Government should urge the Colombian government to include religious freedom in the agenda of the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas.
- The US government must put pressure on the Colombian government to counter the abuses in the realm of religious freedom of the constitutional provision that grants autonomy to indigenous territories.
- I also recommend that advantage should be taken of the recent developments in diplomatic relations with Cuba to specifically address the religious freedom situation in that country.
- Finally, the US Government should work together with Latin American states to create a system in which churches and Christian leaders who are victims of extortion feel safe to denounce threats against them.