Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application
The Preamble to the Venezuelan Constitution invokes God’s protection regarding the establishment of a democratic society that upholds rights, including freedom from discrimination.
Under Article 59 of the constitution, the state guarantees freedom of worship and religion. The same article states that everyone has the “right to profess their religious faith and cults,” as well as “to express their beliefs in private or in public, by teaching and other practices, provided such beliefs are not contrary to moral[ity], good customs and public order.”
The article goes on to guarantee the independence and autonomy of Churches and religious denominations, and recognises the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs.
Article 61 upholds freedom of conscience and expression. It also stipulates that conscientious objection cannot be invoked to avoid complying with the law.
According to Article 89 (4), all forms of discrimination in the workplace are prohibited.
The state recognises the rights of indigenous peoples under Article 119 of the constitution, including their right to religious belief. According to Article 121, indigenous people also have the right to maintain and develop their customs and values, including their spirituality and places of worship. These rights are protected by the country’s constitution and its laws.
Article 97 of the 2005 Organic Law on Indigenous People and Communities recognises the spirituality and creed of indigenous communities as fundamental components of their worldview. Imposing religious beliefs on indigenous peoples is not allowed, nor is denying their practices and beliefs (Article 98). The religious education of indigenous children and adolescents is the responsibility of parents, relatives, and members of their community (Article 100). Indigenous people have the right to protection from political and religious fanaticism (Article 107).
The Organic Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents recognises the right of children and adolescents to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Their parents or guardians have the right and duty to guide them in the exercise of this right. Minors have the right to their own cultural life, to profess and practise their religion or belief, and to use their own language, especially those who belong to ethnic, religious, or indigenous minorities.
The Organic Law on Education declares the state to be secular and independent of all religions. This does not prevent the right of parents to choose the religious education of their children.
The Ministry of Education and the Venezuelan Association of Catholic Education (Asociación Venezolana de Educación Católica, AVEC) signed an agreement meaning that the state financially supports Catholic schools in the country.
In 2021, the Ministry changed how it pays teachers, administrative staff, and employees of AVEC-affiliated schools, opting to send the money through a state agency rather than an AVEC. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela (CEV) spoke out against this, calling it a violation of the State–Church agreement, and suggesting that it will harm school autonomy.
Under the tax reform of 2014, exemptions once available to institutions dedicated to religious, artistic, scientific, and other activities were eliminated. Only charities and social welfare organisations can now claim tax exemptions.
Venezuela’s Penal Code lists various types of conduct that threaten freedom of worship. Article 168 relates to the punishment of people who attempt to prevent or disturb religious services or ceremonies, or those who intentionally damage objects used in worship.
The Constitutional Law against Hate, for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance imposes penalties of up to 20 years in prison on anyone who disseminates hateful messages by radio, television, or social media based on a person’s affiliation with certain groups defined, among others, by their social status, ethnicity, religion, political views, or sexual orientation.
This law is very broad and imprecise and is highly discretionary in its application. According to the NGO Espacio Público, this is a means of limiting freedom of expression, especially when it comes to dissenting opinions, and has been used to silence journalists and priests.
The Civil Code recognises Churches as legal entities. Under an agreement with the Holy See signed in 1964, the Catholic Church is recognised as having its own public and legal personality.
In 1994, another agreement was signed with the Holy See regarding the provision of spiritual assistance in the Armed Forces.
Finally, in April 2022, the Law on the Protection of Victims, Witnesses and Other Procedural Topics was reformed to protect indigenous people in accordance with their sociocultural standards and worldviews.
Incidents and developments
Over the past two years, various reports have been released that are highly critical of the human rights situation in Venezuela, such as the Report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of September 2021; the US State Department’s Report on Religious Freedom in Venezuela, also published in 2021; and Human Rights Watch's 2022 global report.
Venezuela has been experiencing an unprecedented crisis. “Almost 80 percent of about 33 million Venezuelans suffer from extreme poverty. Added to this are galloping inflation, the spread of organised crime and the consequences of the pandemic”. More than five million Venezuelans have already left the country.
An egregious example is that which occurred in late December 2020, when over 27 refugees fleeing the country drowned near the fishing port of Güiria. Passengers on two mafia-run boats set out on 6 December in northeast Venezuela, “hoping to traverse the hundred kilometres or so” to Puerto España, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.
The government of President Nicolás Maduro reacted harshly to complaints made during the period under review by the Catholic Church over the country’s socio-political crisis and its defence of human rights.
In May 2021, the President called Jesuit Father Arturo Sosa a “mercenary of the pen” after he referred to Maduro as the head of a dictatorship.
In June 2021 Cardinal Baltazar Porras expressed the Church's willingness to act as a “facilitator” in eventual negotiations between the government and the opposition in order to help find a solution to the country’s political crisis.
That same month, the National Assembly established the Commission on Family and Religious Freedom.
In July 2021, President Maduro demanded explanations from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, regarding a “letter full of hatred and attacks” against Venezuela which the prelate sent to Fedecámaras (Venezuelan Business Association), in which he invited “Venezuelans, especially those who have some kind of political responsibility” to engage in dialogue. Vice President Delcy Rodríguez lashed out too, saying that “priests who want to engage in politics ought to take off their cassock and get involved in politics.”
In August 2021, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela criticised Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB) for preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Mérida, which had been hit by torrential rain. In the statement, the prelates denounced the attitude of some government authorities and the GNB who, “far from cooperating selflessly, did not only prevent a large part of the aid sent from various parts of the country from getting through, but also expressed an attitude of disdain towards members of the Church and other institutions.”
Auxiliary Bishop Luis Enrique Rojas of Mérida confronted members of the GNB and, through social media channels, decried what happened. President Maduro responded by calling the bishops who sent the aid “devils in cassocks”, and described them as “bugs”.
Diosdado Cabello, first Vice President of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, accused Venezuela’s Catholic Church of acting like a political party, and said that Auxiliary Bishop Rojas was “ridiculous.”
The Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America echoed concerns expressed by the Evangelical Council of Venezuela over government interference through the establishment of official bodies, with local offices, called “Government Pastoral Councils”. In violation of the principle of separation between Church and State, the Councils declare themselves to be the only authoritative voice of the Evangelical community, thus silencing those communities and Churches that do not recognise them. Those that do are seen as rebels or opponents of the regime.
Through the Council, the government has started to register Venezuela’s Evangelical Churches under a so-called Good Shepherd Plan, granting financial bonuses to those pastors who register. The Observatory criticised this attempt to control Churches, noting that “state support should be granted equally and without political or partisan strings”. Church registration began in March 2022, generating a database first in the capital, Caracas, and then in other locations.
The Patria (Homeland) program, a digital platform set up by the government in 2016, allows its members to access public services and social programs through a QR code card, a system that has been described by the "Constitutional Bloc", an organisation formed by judges, lawyers and jurists, as a tool for socioeconomic and electoral control.
Similarly, the bishop of San Cristóbal asked that the vaccination plan not be politicised. He complained that only people with a “homeland card” (carnet de la patria) were being vaccinated; that is, only supporters of Chavism, the left-wing movement associated with the late President Hugo Chavez, without prioritising health staff and vulnerable groups.
In April 2021, the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Venezuela and Colombia called on the authorities of the two countries to find a solution to the border crisis brought about by armed conflict. The dispute has brought about the displacement of thousands of people.
In May 2021, the Maria Auxiliadora church in Maracay was robbed three nights in a row. Religious items, such as ciboria and censers, as well as sound equipment and small appliances, were stolen.
In an important ruling, the Supreme Court of Justice in August 2021 upheld the constitutionality of the Organic Law for Seniors’ Comprehensive Care, which includes provisions to respect the ancestral medicinal and religious practices of indigenous seniors.
Likewise, before regional elections in November 2021, Venezuelan bishops urged Venezuelans to vote, stressing that abstaining will not lead to change.
Throughout the pandemic, prelates urged citizens to be vaccinated against COVID-19, calling for a consistent vaccination policy, with vaccines recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). They also stressed that the pandemic was having a major economic and social impact, particularly in terms of education.
On 12 October 2021, Venezuela celebrated the 529th anniversary of the "Day of Indigenous Resistance", which acknowledges the importance of indigenous peoples, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
In late 2021, the Catholic Church and its main charity, Caritas, helped residents of Pao affected by floods collect food, medicine, and donations. For their part, Jehovah's Witnesses sent food and hygiene products (soaps) to Venezuela to help it get through its severe economic crisis.
In January 2022, it was announced that Christian pastors affiliated with the Homeland program would get a financial bonus.
Hate crimes (attacks against property and individuals) during the period under review did not appear to be religiously motivated, although they had an impact on the way that religious freedom was exercised. For example, in January 2022, air conditioning equipment that helped preserve the uncorrupted body of Venezuela’s first blessed was reportedly stolen. Without it, the shrine’s humidity and heat levels rose. In August 2022, Councilman Ronald Soto was murdered in Zulia, inside the Evangelical church where he served as pastor. Sources indicate that he was the victim of extortion, and that organised crime was responsible.
In 2022, the traditional parade of the Three Kings held in January, and the procession of the Holy Christ of Health in March, which the Ministry of Culture had declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage, were allowed to resume.
In July 2022, the Bishops’ Conference acknowledged that members of the Church had committed sexual abuse in Venezuela; in so doing, it reiterated its willingness to work with the justice system and committed itself to making churches “safe places for all.”
Prospects for freedom of religion
Venezuela’s political, social, and economic crisis goes on, resulting in a humanitarian crisis characterised by shortages of food and medicines. The government provides aid only to those who have signed up to its registry, or through programs that favour certain religious groups that are enrolled in it.
The Catholic Church continues to decry the deterioration of democracy, forced displacement of people and punishing poverty, as well as the continuous violations of human rights committed by the regime. An important voice speaking out for the oppressed, the Church bears a significant brunt of relentless criticism and attacks from the government.
The undermining of Evangelical Churches by the so-called Good Shepherd Plan, attacks on places of worship and harassment of religious leaders are clear violations of freedom of religion. This situation has not changed significantly since the previous report. The outlook for the future remains negative.