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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

The preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala states that the constitution is made “invoking the name of God”.[1] Under article 36, “the exercise of all the religions is free. Any person has the right to practise his religion or belief, in public and in private, through teaching, cult and observance, without other limits than the public order and the due respect for the dignity of the hierarchy and the faithful of other beliefs.”

Article 37 of the constitution gives legal recognition to the Catholic Church. It also ack-nowledges the ownership of the Catholic Church over “real assets it holds peacefully for its own purposes, as long as they have formed part of the patrimony of the Catholic Church in the past”.  Also under article 37, other Churches or religious entities can obtain legal recognition “in accordance with the rules of their institution, and the Government may not deny it, aside from reasons of public order”. Article 37 also states: “The real assets of the religious entities assigned to cult, to education and to social assistance enjoy exemption from taxes, assessments and contributions.”

Under articles 186,197 and 207, ministers of religion cannot assume the offices of president, vice president, or cabinet minister; nor can they be magistrates or judges.

According to article 71, the state undertakes to provide education “without any discrimination whatsoever”. Under article 73, “religious education is optional in the official establishments and can be taught during ordinary hours, without any discrimination.” Likewise, the state undertakes to “contribute to the maintenance of religious education without any discrimination”.

Under the Civil Code, churches which are legal persons are entitled to acquire, possess and dispose of goods, provided that the latter are destined exclusively to religious purposes, social assistance or education.[2]

Under the Labour Code, discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited in establishments engaged in social welfare, education, culture, entertainment or commerce. Employers are not allowed to influence the religious convictions of their employees. Trade unions can be dissolved if it can be proven in a court of law that they cause or foment religious strife.[3]

The Penal Code imposes criminal sanctions for anyone who disrupts religious celebrations or who carries out acts that offend religious practices and objects of worship or who desecrates places of worship or burial. Theft is subject to more stringent criminal penalties if the objects stolen are used for worship or otherwise have high religious significance.[4]


In July 2016, members of the Intercultural and Inter-religious Cooperation Committee of Guatemala took part in an inter-religious forum at the School of Catholic Youth Leaders, to learn more about other religions and forms of spirituality.[5]

In September 2016, after prosecutors and police forced their way into the buildings of the Ultra Orthodox Lev Tahor Jewish community in Guatemala City, the community moved to Santa Rosa. The authorities explained that the operation was carried out at the request of the Government of Israel, which was seeking a girl who had not been authorised to leave the country. The community believed that the action represented a form of harassment against them because of their beliefs. In 2014, they had been expelled from the Guatamalan town of San Juan de La Laguna.[6]  Then, in April 2017, a court in the Department of Sololá sentenced the former mayor of the municipality of San Juan La Laguna to one year in prison for the crime of coercion because he had ordered that expulsion.[7] Also in April 2017, an Israeli Court ruled that the Lev Tahor sect in Guatemala was a “dangerous cult” that abuses children.[8]

In February 2017 the country’s Mayan community celebrated the arrival of the New Year.[9]

In February 2017 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Guatemala expressed concern over the arrival of a Dutch boat, “Women on Waves”, which sails around the world to perform abortions in countries where the practice is illegal. The bishops also expressed their support for the government for “protecting and upholding the country’s laws”.[10]

In August 2017 a Salvadoran priest, Father Juan Carlos Mendoza Alfaro, was murdered in Yupiltepeque, Guatemala. According to the authorities, he was intercepted by a group of armed men as he made his way to his assigned parish, and, despite identifying himself as a man of the Church, he was attacked and killed.[11]

In March 2017 Comptroller General Carlos Mencos publicly urged a mayor not to continue with the construction of a Catholic church in the village of La Tremendita. The reason he gave is that under to the constitution, Guatemala is a secular state, and so public resources cannot be spent on religious projects. For the comptroller, allocating funds to the construction of churches generates conflict in the country, which is home to various religions.[12]

In April 2017 the Intercultural and Inter-religious Cooperation Committee of Guatemala met to pray. Each of its members prayed according to their distinct Mayan, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i or Christian beliefs to honour the legacy of Monsignor Juan José Gerardi, who had been murdered in April 1998.[13]

In November 2017 the Ahmadi Muslim Community of Guatemala held its annual con-
vention. The Ahmadi Muslims invited members of other religious confessions, including the Catholic, Evangelical and Mormon Churches.[14]

In January 2018 the Catholic Church expressed concerns and criticised the state for the way it was dealing with the critical political and socioeconomic situation of the country, which “lives under the dictatorship of corruption”.[15] In February 2018, Archbishop Óscar Julio Vián, who had criticised the political system and corruption, died from cancer. The government ordered three days of mourning.[16]

In February 2018 police received reports about attempts to extort large sums of moneyfrom members of the San Cristóbal Church in Palín. As a result of the threats made, some processions planned for Lent and Holy Week were called off. The Church had received threats years before, but after filing complaints, things had gone back to normal.[17] In the same month, someone started a fire in the parish church of San Juan Bautista de Amatitlán, which was built in 1665. The blaze caused damage to the bell tower and the cellar, at an estimated cost of 15,000 quetzals (about US$ 2,000).[18] The culprit was arrested by the authorities.[19]

In February 2018 Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales met with representatives of the Jewish and Evangelical communities at the National Palace of Culture.[20]

In March 2018 an international conference entitled “Religious Freedom, Secular State and Conscientious Objection” was held, sponsored by Brigham Young University, the La Familia Importa (Family Matters) Association and Manos mormonas que ayudan (Helping
Mormon Hands), with the participation of scholars, religious leaders and government
officials. The Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, offered words of welcome and
was supportive of the right to conscientious objection.[21]

In March 2018 the La Familia Importa Association filed a complaint against Jordán Rodas,
the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman, for “disturbing acts of worship” because of his participation in a march on International Women’s Day. During the march, a group of women parodied the Virgin Mary in a mock procession that included a “powerful vulva”. The prosecutor was asked to appear before the country’s Congress.[22]

Prospects for freedom of religion

In the period under review, there were no significant violations of the right to the freedom of religion, and the authorities acted on concerns raised by religious groups. As the country’s political crisis continues, various religious denominations continue to take part in activities that facilitate interfaith dialogue. The constitutional recognition of the Catholic Church puts the Church in a position that is noticeably different from that of other religious groups in the country.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Guatemala’s Constitution of 1985 with Amendments through 1993,, , (accessed 25th May 2018).

[2] Código Civil, Guatemala, articles 15 and 17, , (accessed 4th April 2018).

[3] Código de Trabajo, Guatemala, articles 14 bis; 62, d; 226, a,, (accessed 4th April 2018).

[4] Código Penal, Guatemala, articles 224; 225; 247, 7, 255 bis, ANDTREATIES/PDFFILES/GTM_codigo_penal.pdf , (accessed 4th April 2018).

[5] Mesa de Cooperación Intercultural e inter-religiosa de Guatemala, publicaciones, 29th July 2016, Facebook Mesa de Cooperación Intercultural e inter-religiosa de Guatemala,, (accessed 30th April 2018).

[6] ‘Guatemala: expulsan de San Juan La Laguna a miembros de comunidad judía”, BBC Mundo, 30th August 2014,, (accessed 23rd May 2018).

[7] ‘Condenan a un año de prisión conmutable al ex-alcalde de San Juan La Laguna por expulsión de judíos ortodoxos en 2014’, El Periódico, 4th April 2017,, (accessed 2nd May 2018).

[8] E. Peled, ‘Corte Israelí: secta ultra-ortodoxa de Centroamérica es un ‘culto peligroso”, Enlace Judío, 27th April 2017,, (accessed 2nd May 2018).

[9] ‘Alrededor del fuego sagrado los mayas celebran la llegada del año nuevo’, Telesur, 22nd February 2017,, (accessed 2nd May 2018).

[10] ‘Obispos de Guatemala contra ‘barco abortista’’, Religión Digital, 28th February 2017,
gion-iglesia-aborto-women-waves.shtml, (accessed 19th March 2018).

[11] ‘Un sacerdote salvadoreño, asesinado en Guatemala’, Religión Digital, 25th August 2017, , (accessed 19th March 2018).

[12] C. Espina, ‘Contralor solicita a municipalidades a no invertir en iglesias’, El Periódico, 20 March 2017,, (accessed 19th March 2018).

[13] Mesa de Cooperación Intercultural e inter-religiosa de Guatemala, publicaciones, 28th April 2017, FacebookMesa de Cooperación Intercultural e inter-religiosa de Guatemala, mesa.interreligiosa/posts/?ref=page_internal, (accessed 30th April 2018). 14 ‘La Iglesia participa en Convención Musulmana’, Sala de prensa de la Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días, 21st November 2017,, (accessed 2nd May 2018).

[15] W. Oliva, ‘Con estas frases la Iglesia Católica reprende a los poderes del Estado’, Prensa Libre, 19th January 2018,, (accessed 19th March 2018).

[16] R. Estrada, ‘Fallece el arzobispo Oscar Julio Vian’, El Periódico, 25th February 2018,, (accessed 19th March 2018); ‘Último adios al arzobispo Óscar Julio Vián’, Religión Digital, 25th February 2018,, (accessed 19th March 2018).

[17] E. Paredes, ‘Iglesia de Palín de nuevo recibe amenazas de extorsionistas y suspende procesiones’, Prensa Libre, 19th February 2018,, (accessed 19th March 2018).

[18] O. García, ‘Incendio provocado daña campanario y bodega de Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Amatitlán’, Prensa Libre, 6th February 2018, , (accessed 19th March 2018).

[19] O. García, ‘Incendio provocado daña campanario y bodega de Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Amatitlán’, Prensa Libre, 6th February 2018, , (accessed 19th March 2018).

[20] ‘CJL. Guatemala: Encuentro con el presidente Jimmy Morales’. Iton Gadol. 2nd February 2018,, (accessed 27th April 2018).

[21] ‘Participantes de los países Centroamericanos analizan la libertad religiosa como derecho fundamental’, Sala de prensa mormona, 9th March 2018,, (accessed 11th May 2018; ‘PDH expone acerca de la importancia del derecho a la libertad de religión’, PDH.ORG, 12th March 2018, pdh-expone-acerca-de-la-importancia-del-derecho-a-la-libertad-de-religi%C3%B3n.html, (accessed 11th May 2018).

[22] ‘Denuncian al ombudsman guatemalteco por haber ‘vulnerado’ a la Iglesia Católica’,, 14th March 2018,
sman-guatemalteco-por-haber-vulnerado-a-la-Iglesia-catolica.html, (accessed 19th March 2018); W. Cumes, ‘Congreso cita a procurador Jordán Rodas para la próxima semana’, Prensa Libre, 13th March 2018,, (accessed 19th March 2018).

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