Latin America

Teresa FloresLatin America has environments hostile to religious freedom".

The right to religious freedom is recognized in most Latin American countries. But freedom "is not limited to the private sphere, but transcends the collective and public sphere, and there are impediments and threats that undermine the full exercise of this right," lawyer Teresa Flores, director of the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America (OLIRE), told Omnes.

Francisco Otamendi-July 17, 2022-Reading time: 11 minutes

Photo: A woman carries a crucifix at a protest against President Daniel Ortega ©CNS photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters

"In countries with authoritarian tendencies, as in Nicaragua, the Church is one of the few, if not the only institution that enjoys greater credibility and, therefore, its level of influence among the population is seen as a danger to government control," explains in this interview lawyer Teresa Flores, director of the Observatory for Religious Freedom in Latin America (Observatorio de Libertad Religiosa en América Latina).OLIRE), whose mission is to promote religious freedom and publicize restrictions to this right in the region.

In Nicaragua, "politically motivated violations of religious freedom have been escalating and there have been various strategies used by the government to intimidate the voice of religious leaders, especially Catholics.

The expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity is just one more episode in this campaign of intimidation and retaliation," he adds.

By the way, the missionaries have been welcomed in Costa Rica by Msgr. Salazar Mora, bishop of the diocese of Tilarán-Liberia, who assured that it is "an honor" to receive them.

Precisely a month and a half ago, OIDAC Europe, its Latin American partner OLIRE, and the IIRF (International Institute for Religious Freedom) presented a joint report in Vienna, based on four studies conducted through personal interviews with practicing Christians from different sectors of society, and carried out in two European countries (France and Germany) and two Latin American countries (Colombia and Mexico). I had already spoken about some of these ideas Martin Kugler in Omnes.

Now, Omnes talks to Teresa FloresShe is a lawyer from the Universidad Católica Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo (Peru), with a master's degree in Constitutional Law and Human Rights from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (Peru), and a diploma in Religious Studies from the Universidad Católica de Chile, who has also worked in Mendoza (Argentina), and is a researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones Sociales Avanzadas (CISAV) in Querétaro (Mexico).

Can you summarize some of the conclusions of the report, especially with regard to Latin American countries? It seems that intolerance is growing and increasingly threatens the freedom of expression of Christians and Catholics.

- It is important to remember that the research is an initial, exploratory approximation of the phenomenon of self-censorship among Christians (Catholics and non-Catholics) in Colombia and Mexico. As indicated in the report, a tendency has been identified in the group of interviewees (approximately 40 people) whereby they find it very difficult to express opinions based on their faith in public or private spaces, especially when it comes to issues related to life, marriage, family, euthanasia, adoption between persons of the same sex and other related issues, so that, on occasions, they opt for self-censorship.

This difficulty lies not only in the fear of being administratively or criminally sanctioned under the application of anti-discrimination laws, but also in being socially discredited. It is worth clarifying that social discrediting is not only limited to criticism.

Sometimes, the hostile social environment brings with it a burden that translates into exclusion from certain circles and therefore social isolation, which has repercussions on the way in which the person develops on a day-to-day basis.

Reactions to a hostile social environment will be different, won't they?

- Of course, the way of facing possible sanctions or a hostile environment varies from person to person. One of the findings of the research is precisely that, among the interviewees, on the one hand, there is the group of those who do not self-censor and accept the consequences of a hostile environment, arguing that their faith is worth it, and that they must assume the consequences of it.

On the other hand, there are those who censor themselves for fear of legal and/or social sanctions. There are also those who, due to constant self-censorship and the null or almost non-existent accompaniment in the faith of a religious, Christian community, are losing their faith or little by little and stop seeing the characteristics related to self-censorship as a problem.

However, the results of this research should not be understood as an attempt to victimize Christians (Catholics and non-Catholics). While there is a limitation to the expression of opinions based on the faith of Christians in both Mexico and Colombia, we must also recognize the counterpart, Christians who are intolerant of other positions or beliefs and who, taking their faith as a premise, end up stigmatizing or discriminating against other groups. But it is important to keep in mind that it is always necessary to evaluate each specific case.

Tell us about a case in Colombia or Mexico.

- For example, in Colombia and Mexico, students told us that they stopped participating in class because their faith-based opinions on issues of sexuality or gender contradicted the teacher's way of thinking or contravened the institutional line and they were at risk of being disapproved or expelled.

In Mexico, public officials interviewed stated that they have to think twice about what words to use so that they are not included in a "certain framework" or are not denounced before the Ombudsman's Office, Congress or the Attorney General's Office. Sayings related to their faith or their points of view based on their faith, arouse controversy and the consequent rejection of their parties or the institutions in which they work. A Colombian councilman pointed out that permanent caution is a sacrifice inherent to public activity.

Recognizing self-censorship and the paralyzing effect on Christians implies recognizing that there is a sector of believers of Christian doctrine who, because they find themselves in a hostile environment, do not feel free to share their faith-based beliefs on the sensitive issues mentioned above.

Madeleine Enzlberger, executive director of OIDAC Europe, has pointed out that "one of the most worrying and tragic conclusions of this (Vienna) report is that if the social costs of following your belief and expressing it become too high, people will eventually abandon their belief. Do you share this point of view?

- As I have mentioned, the research in Colombia and Mexico did identify among some interviewees the possibility of no longer seeing self-censorship as a problem or as something that affects the experience of faith.

The consequences may not always lead to abandoning the belief completely; however, the fact of identifying one's faith or opinions based on one's beliefs as something harmful, as a disadvantage or a burden that does not allow one to "advance" in the social environment is a form of pressure with the possible consequence of ceasing to nurture one's faith, or lack of interest in sharing it. Even those who do not have a solid formation in their faith may adopt doctrinal content more in line with political correctness.

On they have a report entitled 'Data Can you give a brief overall assessment of the recognition of this fundamental right in Latin America?

- The right to religious freedom is recognized in most Latin American countries. The normative frameworks regulate this right, although depending on the country or the political context, some may be more protective than others. For example, the protection of religious freedom is not the same in Nicaragua as in Colombia, El Salvador or Honduras.

The fact that a country's Constitution or regulations attempt to guarantee this right is a good starting point, but it is not enough. Sometimes, even when the laws in the text establish parameters of application and protection, in practice there are various contexts that jeopardize the exercise of this right in its various dimensions.

Considering that religious freedom is not limited to the private sphere, but transcends the collective and public sphere, impediments to perform religious services in public spaces, funding obstacles for religious organizations, criminalization of expressions of faith, threats to religious leaders who carry out political or social activism, etc. undermine the full exercise of this right.

Latin America is not exempt from these phenomena; throughout the region various dynamics have been identified that limit this right. We can mention, as general lines, the hostility of religious expressions by state and non-state actors, hostility towards religious conversion in indigenous communities, regulation of religion by organized crime and religious restrictions motivated by the totalitarian control of the government or motivated by a political ideology related to communism.

The Observatory on Religious Freedom in Latin America has an open access platform Violent Incidents Database, The database contains information on episodes of violations of the right to religious freedom in the region, identified through desk research, information provided by collaborating partners or as a result of field research. In this database it is possible to review cases related to the dynamics mentioned above.

Nicaragua has expelled the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. What is happening in that country, in your opinion?

- In countries with authoritarian tendencies, such as Nicaragua, the Church is one of the few, if not the only institution that enjoys greater credibility and, therefore, its level of influence among the population is seen as a danger to government control. In the country, politically motivated violations of religious freedom have been escalating and there have been various strategies used by the government to intimidate the voice of religious leaders, especially Catholics, when their speech is perceived as critical, for showing their support for the opposition or when they denote efforts to return the rule of law to the country.

The expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity is just one more episode in this campaign of intimidation and retaliation by the government. The measures applied against the Catholic religious sector perceived as opposition, range from restrictions on mobility/travel with the withholding or revocation of visas, impediments to enter the country, harassment of religious leaders and their families through surveillance of parishes, homes, vehicles; to defamation campaigns, verbal threats, attacks on physical integrity, arrests, threats of arrests.

Laws that criminalize all criticism

On the other hand, in the context of the legal framework, there are laws that criminalize any criticism and under which religious leaders can be sanctioned with arrests or, in the case of faith-based organizations, the loss of legal status, not to mention other obstacles to the functioning or operations of faith-based organizations, as well as restrictions on the normal functioning or activities of churches related to humanitarian assistance.

Even the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has issued precautionary measures in favor of a bishop and a deacon in the country, given the serious and urgent situation of risk to which they are exposed.

These strategies, plus the hate speech of the authorities against the church, have also permeated society and have promoted acts of intolerance on the part of collectives or groups related to the government that, in addition to monitoring the actions or statements of religious leaders or congregations related to these leaders, commit acts of vandalism or desecration of places of worship. The attacks are carried out with particular viciousness in the case of Catholic temples.

On the other hand, there are countries with a constituent process underway. How do you see these processes in relation to the right to religious freedom?

- Regarding constituent processes and their relationship with the right to religious freedom, I would say that it is quite close. Political constitutions embody, among other things, the fundamental principles of the state, the type of government and the way in which the human rights of the citizens of each country are understood and protected, including the right to religious freedom.

Several aspects can be taken into account in these processes. On the one hand, it can lead to friction with minority religious denominations, if the same constitutional recognition is not provided for as for majority or traditional religions.

On the other hand, a whole discussion on whether the State should or should not include any specific religious denomination may come into play, especially taking into account whether the State recognizes itself as secular or not. And what is understood by the principle of separation Church-State.

Additionally, in these processes, religious communities seek not only the recognition of religious freedom in general, but also the protection of certain legal figures that are important according to each doctrine of faith, such as marriage and the family.

Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua...

In the Cuban case, the last constitutional reform submitted to referendum included changes in the concept of marriage, which motivated the rejection of the proposal by religious groups, and this in turn originated pressure from the authorities against religious leaders and congregations that refused to accept such constitutional reforms.

In the recent Chilean case, one of the topics of discussion in the constitutional convention is also the way in which the right to religious freedom will be incorporated. Given that the constitution informs the entire legal system of a nation, incorporating this right is an important prerequisite for its protection and guarantee in the country.

In Nicaragua there has not been a recent constituent process, but there have been presidential elections in November of last year, which have been quite irregular. In some way this is also closely linked to the way in which religious freedom is protected, since the electoral process as a mechanism for citizen participation, if it is not completely free and transparent, does not consolidate democracy and rather corrodes the system of rights guarantees, violating fundamental freedoms such as the right to religious freedom, especially in its public and collective dimension.

Contexts of pressure in Mexico

One of the authors of the Vienna report, Friederike Boellmann, stressed that "the German case reveals that universities are the most hostile environment. And the highest degree of self-censorship I found in my research in academia." Does something similar happen in Latin America?

Regarding the hostile environment in universities, it was especially among those interviewed in Mexico that various contexts of pressure against Christian professors and students (Catholic and non-Catholic) were known.

In Mexico, a university professor stated that when he moved from Chihuahua to Mexico City he felt more pressure to avoid talking about his faith in the academic environment, and at the University he was forced to stop using phrases such as "Gracias a Dios", "Dios te bendiga", "Con el favor de Dios", etc.

The same professor pointed out that, until he is explicitly asked about some topics, he prefers not to touch on them for fear of being ignored or not listened to. In this sense, he understands his situation as didactic self-censorship, so as not to lose the opportunity to continue "being present".

Another Mexican teacher commented that she had to be careful with the vocabulary or expressions she used. If the students knew her religious affiliation, it did not matter if she used scientific arguments to deal with certain topics, she felt that she was socially rejected by her students and that she was disqualified beforehand just for accepting to have religious beliefs. Even her scientific articles were rejected by editorial boards on the grounds of being "biased".

In the same vein, a Mexican student, undergoing a disciplinary process at the university for accusations of violence against women for his rejection of abortion, stated that he knew of a professor of his who was in favor of it, but that he could not openly support it because it would mean trouble for the professor with the head of the department.

Are there laws or projects in preparation, as in European countries, that prevent the expression of a Christian or Catholic point of view on sexuality or gender?

- From what I know, there are laws and legislative initiatives that seek to limit the expression of faith-based opinions in the region, although they do not affect only the academic sector, but have a broader scope.

There are regulations or policies that limit the exercise of religious freedom, the right to conscientious objection or affect the autonomy and immunity from coercion of confessional institutions when they manifest or act according to their own convictions or institutional ideology and this is not in accordance with the sexual orientation and gender identity policies in a specific country.

We can mention the initiative presented in 2020, which sought to reform section IV of article 29, corresponding to the chapter on infractions and sanctions of the Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship of Mexico.

The proposal was intended to sanction acts of discrimination based on sexual identity or gender expression by religious organizations and their agents against the population belonging to sexual minorities. The initiative did not prosper, but it is an example of the attempts to limit the freedom of expression of religious leaders on issues related to sexuality and gender.

Any other cases?

- In Argentina, there was also the case of an investigation by the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism into the educational content of the educational network of the Fraternity of St. Thomas Aquinas Groupings (FASTA). The authorities considered that the teachings in line with the Christian ideology of the grouping had homophobic and hateful connotations against sexual minorities and the feminist movement.

In Colombia, a judge refused to marry a female couple because doing so would go against his Christian morals and convictions. The LGTBI community considered the judge's attitude offensive and discriminatory. The judge was denounced for prevarication.

In April of this year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared the State of Chile responsible for the violation of the rights to equality and non-discrimination, to personal liberty, to privacy and to work of Sandra Pavez Pavez, for the apparent discriminatory treatment she suffered when she was removed from her position as a Catholic religion teacher in a public school, after the Vicariate for Education of the Bishopric of San Bernardo revoked her certificate of suitability based on her sexual orientation. This despite the fact that, according to Chilean regulations, the national authority confers to the religious authority the power to issue the certification of suitability for those teachers who will teach their doctrine and principles.

To mention a few.

We thank Teresa Flores for her answers. The right to religious freedom seems to have a red light in some Latin American countries, that is, serious problems, and certainly amber in several of them, depending on the issues, especially life, sexuality, family and gender. The Observatory that he directs (OLIRE) can be a good watchtower for its monitoring.

The authorFrancisco Otamendi

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