Carlos Mario Alzate, Episcopal Conference of Colombia
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil
I have been asked to express the perception of the Roman Catholic Church about the situation of religion freedom and tolerance in Latin America.
Most Governments say that they respect individual and collective liberty and the freedom of religion. However we see violations of religious freedom not only in this continent but in the whole world. We have already heard here about the situation in communist China. Even though a delegation visited the country recently, it was impossible for the Catholic bishops to attend the last synod. The Pope expressed his sadness for this inability to travel out of China.
Another known fact is the situation in Vietnam where Catholic activity is totally forbidden. In the Arab countries there is an enormous difficulty for missionaries-Catholics or Christian—even to give humanitarian help. And lately in Russia, legislation has passed that prohibits the missionary activity of all the churches that are not Orthodox. We consider this legislation to be a limitation not only on the liberty of the churches and on the churchesí ability to speak even to their parishioners in Russia, but also on their ability to develop any other kind of activity.
In the case of Latin America I would like to highlight three cases which need particular attention. I will start by saying that we have had a worrisome past in the matter of religious freedom. The governments of the past century and the beginning of this one always moved between two possibilities: a total support of the Catholic Church to the detriment of any other Christian faith; and a rejection of Catholicism due to the fear of being labeled "Spanish." Radical or liberal governments, such as in Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, and Guatemala, went so far as to persecute priests and bishops, expel minority religious communities, and declare "dead" the properties of the Catholic Church. They would nationalize that appropriated property and assign it to evangelical Christians for political reasons.
Last night someone was saying that when a government gives privileges to a particular group it is not for religious reasons but for political motivation and with the intent to manipulate. At this time I want to denounce the case of Chiapas, Mexico. The Mexican government, which is a true dictatorship, has always put impediments to religious freedom in that country. Two months ago I was in Mexico for a meeting. I could not say I was a minister, because I would not have gotten a visa to go there. But I want to insist that the action of the government against the religious people working in the area of Chiapas, is that they are accusing them of belonging to the Zapatistas. They are involved in a defamatory campaign with persecution and violent actions against dedicated religious people. There is a team there led by the Bishop Samuel Luis that has been working for 40 years for the rights of the indigenous people in the south of Mexico. There have been crimes against missionaries and leaders of the campesinos.