Dr. Paulina Eyzaguirre
Latin America and the Caribbean comprise 33 countries with a population estimated at more than 657 million, with an average age of 31 years. These nations share similar historic and cultural heritages, with just under 60 percent of the population identifying as Catholic. Democracy predominates across most of the region and half of the countries (17) held elections between 2018 and 2020. Several Latin American countries, however, are mired in socio-political crises made worse by violence, an absence of the rule of law, drug trafficking, corruption and, to make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, there is significant migration from the region, principally to the USA, by those seeking a better life.
The predominance of Christianity in Latin America and the Caribbean is no guarantee that religious freedom is upheld. During the period under review, Afro-Brazilian religious groups reported incidents of religious intolerance, while in Argentina the Jewish community was a target of intolerance and persecution (see the country reports). The Christian majority, however, is still the faith group most affected by hate crimes in the form of attacks against religious leaders, places of worship, cemeteries, monuments and religious images. These attacks are responses to Christianity’s defence of the oppressed, as well as its public opposition to actions by state and non-state actors.
Hostility towards religious organisations
As revealed in the country reports, the greatest violations of religious freedom occurred in nations with questionable records of respect for human rights and democracy, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. These governments expressed hostility and aggression towards Christian Churches – both Catholic and non-Catholic – when religious leaders denounced corruption, and social and political policies understood to be detrimental to the common good. Concretely, hostility by the state was evidenced through the use of force including: disrupting religious celebrations; intimidating the faithful with belligerent police deployments around churches and during processions; the conspicuous absence of police protection when mobs attacked and vandalized places of worship; threats to religious leaders and the faithful; cancelled visas for foreign national church personnel; and opaque registration processes for religious groups.
The absence of the rule of law, and the resulting impact on religious freedom, was most evident in Mexico where violence was committed against civilians by criminal gangs involved in organised crime, including: drug trafficking, human trafficking, corruption, and extortion. Injury and death were inflicted not only on the victims of these crimes, but also on those who, inspired by their religious beliefs, sought to protect the human rights of those oppressed. As indicated in the Mexico country report, priests continued to be abducted and murdered for performing their pastoral responsibilities, seeking to protect their communities or speaking out against the actions of organised criminals. For example, in the state of Chiapas, the Catholic Church reported telephone death threats against a priest, his relatives and his congregation by suspected members of the trafficking group, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. They demanded that the Church recognise that they are in charge of the territory, in exchange for keeping the peace.
During the period under review, eight priests were murdered in five countries: Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru. Investigations are still ongoing (see the country reports).
Increasing attacks against places of worship, religious images and symbols
Attacks against places of worship, monuments, and religious symbols were reported in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (see the country reports). The motivation of the vandals was mostly ideological, but an important common denominator was the attitude of the governments which, in most cases, chose to let the attacks occur during public demonstrations and then chose not to prosecute the perpetrators. Graffiti on buildings, cars and monuments carried slogans in favour of abortion, homosexual marriage, gay pride, as well as denouncing violence against women and clerical sexual abuse.
Acceleration of secularisation
In several countries there was a growing debate about the role of secularism, what a secular state means, and the space given to religious freedom in the public sphere. In this social discourse, certain groups presented the right to religious freedom as contrary to the secular nature of government. This was countered by arguments that secularisation did not deliver governments from the obligation to guarantee the right of the individual to believe, or not, and to order his or her public life in accordance with those beliefs. The authoritative voice of the Catholic Church was in some ways silenced in these debates as a result of the loss of credibility after the sexual abuse scandals, and the hesitant and belated recognition of and restitution to victims.
Over 4.8 million migrants have fled Venezuela alone since the start of the political and economic crisis in 2015. Likewise, although in lower numbers, migrant caravans increasingly left comparable crises in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti (see the country reports). Mexico experienced significant internal displacement as villagers fled the violence of organized crime. Neighbouring nations also faced the challenge of integrating those migrants, with their diverse religious backgrounds, into what were previously more or less homogenous societies. As the country report for Chile reveals, for example, the number of religious groups in that country doubled in a few years, as consequence of migration from Haiti.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the region. Country reports indicate that restrictions imposed on the populations were generally respected, with religious leaders cooperating with governments to persuade the faithful to follow the measures. Indeed, in some cases, religious authorities were perceived as tougher than the health authorities and were criticised for this. The case of Uruguay is noteworthy because, instead of unilaterally imposing restrictions, the authorities reached out to the various religious communities to coordinate a unified approach. Religious communities also contributed to the effort to contain the pandemic by offering health facilities such as hospitals and clinics, as well as buildings to provide shelter and meals for the homeless.
In six countries – Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Colombia – the right to religious freedom received additional protections from higher court rulings (see the country reports). In recognition of the positive role of faith in times of crisis, in several nations, including a number in the Caribbean, traditional popular religious events went ahead, albeit with some restrictions due to the pandemic.
 “Latin America and the Caribbean Population”, Worldometer; https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/latin-america-and-the-caribbean-population
 “Religion affiliation in Latin America as of 2018, by type”, Statista, November 2018; https://www.statista.com/statistics/996386/latin-america-religion-affiliation-share-type/
 “Christians in Latin America are numerous, but still vulnerable”, CRUX, 31st December 2015; https://cruxnow.com/faith/2015/12/christians-in-latin-america-are-numerous-but-still-vulnerable/
 Predominantly, but not exclusively, the Catholic Church.
 “Iglesia católica denuncia amenazas del CJNG contra sacerdotes,” televisa.news, 24th April 2020; https://noticieros.televisa.com/ultimas-noticias/amenazas-cjng-sacerdotes-iglesia-catolica-chiapas/
 “Feministas pintan y atacan iglesia en Colombia durante marcha del 8M”, ACI Prensa, 9th March 2020; https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/feministas-pintan-y-atacan-iglesia-en-colombia-durante-marcha-del-8m-54264 (accessed 7 th March 2021).
 “Marcha de mujeres termina con daños a la catedral de Hermosillo”, Proyecto Puente, 9th March 2020; https://proyectopuente.com.mx/2020/03/09/marcha-de-mujeres-termina-con-danos-a-catedral-de-hermosillo-y-palacios-de-gobierno-municipal-y-del-estado/ (accessed 7 th March 2021).
 “It’s time to start solving Latin America’s migration crisis with creative housing solutions”, by Luis Triveno and Olivia Nielsen, World Bank Blogs, 4th February 2020; https://blogs.worldbank.org/sustainablecities/its-time-start-solving-latin-americas-migration-crisis-creative-housing-solutions
 “Comunidades haitianas forman sus propias iglesias y los pastores podrían crear una nueva asociación”, by Pamela Gutiérrez, El Mercurio, 7th January 2019; http://www.economiaynegocios.cl/noticias/noticias.asp?id=536167 (accessed 28 th October 2020).
 “Seminario 2020: Los desafíos de la libertad religiosa en el sistema interamericano de Derechos Humanos”, by Dr. Carmen Asiaín, Libertad religiosa en el Sistema Interamericano: Uruguay, 24th September 2020; https://www.facebook.com/JuanPabloIIFamilia/videos/384698952560490 (accessed 10th October 2020).