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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

The constitution[1] states that people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The state recognises that the “family is the fundamental unit of society” and protects “intermediate groups” through which society is organised and structured. Article 1 declares that the state is at the service of the human person and must help the individual attain the greatest possible spiritual and material fulfilment.

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, the expression of all beliefs and the free exercise of all faiths that are not contrary to morality, decency or public order. Religious organisations are allowed to build places of worship in accordance with legal requirements concerning health and safety. Under article 19(6), places of worship and other buildings intended exclusively for worship are exempt from taxes.

Chile’s constitution and laws protect religious freedom for more than 2,000 recognised religious groups in the country. Any religious group can apply for non-profit status. The Ministry of Justice cannot refuse a petition for registration, but it can object to any submission within 90 days if there are shortcomings regarding the legal prerequisites in the application. The applicant then has 60 days to object to the points made by the state or seek redress in court. The state cannot de-register a religious organisation after acceptance. Each recognised religious group in the country can set up its own schools, clubs as well as any other organisations.

The Rules on the Legal Constitution of Churches and Religious Organisations are set out under Law No. 19,638 of 1999, which provides that no one shall be discriminated on the basis of their religious beliefs. It enshrines freedom of religion and worship, with autonomy and immunity from coercion, so that everyone can freely profess the religious belief of their choice by engaging in acts of worship in public or in private, individually or collectively, celebrate festivities, and perform their rites or none at all, as well as the freedom for people to leave their religion. The manner of religious education or training received is the concern of each individual or organisation.[2] Also, under Law No. 20.609 there are measures against arbitrary discrimination, banning any form of exclusion or restriction that lacks reasonable justification that causes deprivation, upheaval or threat in the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights. This applies particularly when they are based on specific grounds including race, ethnicity or religion. Differential treatment is deemed reasonable, however, when the person is exercising other legitimate fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience, the expression of all beliefs and the free exercise of all religions.[3] The laws of the country must have regard to the nation’s constitution, in particular to the rights and duties as detailed under article 19.

In the case of abortion, conscientious objection applies to individual medical staff and can also be invoked by an institution.[4]



In October 2016 Communist Party Deputy Camila Vallejo proposed the elimination of the invocation of God’s name in the opening of the sessions of the Chamber of Deputies and its commissions in order to ensure the secular nature of the Chilean state.[5]

In September 2017 President Michelle Bachelet and other political leaders attended a Thanksgiving service organised by a number of Evangelical Churches to mark the country’s Independence Day. During the ceremony, some pastors spoke out against the president and harshly criticised the government’s abortion and marriage equality bills. The president was also insulted by the public outside the church. The government expressed its displeasure with such behaviour, after which an Evangelical bishop said that he would send a letter of apology to the president.[6]

In June 2017 the Inter-religious Advisory Council of the National Religious Affairs Bureau (Oficina Nacional de Asuntos Religiosos, ONAR) released a Code of Ethics to promote a culture of peace. It called on all religions and worldviews to adhere to it.[7] In September 2017 with ONAR’s support, the Interreligious Dialogue Association for Human Development (Asociación de Diálogo Interreligioso para el Desarrollo Humano, ADIR) was launched to promote inter-religious dialogue.[8]

During the 2016-2018 period, a draft law to legalise abortion in three situations (risk to the woman’s life, non-viability of the foetus and rape) was debated. Several churches spoke out against the proposed legislation. The bill was approved in September 2017, including the right of doctors and other medical staff to conscientious objection. The Constitutional Court ruled that the law must allow institutions to claim the right to conscientious objection as well.[9] In January 2018 the protocol for conscientious objection by individuals and institutions was approved. However, it did not allow institutions to exercise the right of conscientious objection if they had signed agreements with National Health Care Service to provide gynaecological and obstetric services. Two Church-linked hospitals challenged the protocol in an appeal. In March, after a new government came into office, a new protocol was adopted overruling that of January; however, the country’s General Accounting Office ruled that neither protocol complied with the law.[10]

During the period under review, the feast day of Saint Lawrence and the days of Pope Francis’s visit were declared holidays for religious reasons.[11]

In January 2018 Pope Francis visited Chile. In the event, the visit was complicated by the fact that it took place in the middle of a sexual-abuse crisis involving the Church and saw a low turn-out among the faithful.[12] During the visit, the Municipality of Iquique erected a ten-metre cross at the city’s entrance, which now stands as a memorial to the Pope’s visit.[13]

Attacks against churches, including arson, continued in the Araucanía region. In June 2016, during a service at an Evangelical church in a rural district, a group of gunmen entered the place of worship and set it on fire. In April 2018 two of those involved in this incident were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.[14] In September 2017 unidentified individuals burnt three churches in different Mapuche communities.[15] A series of attacks took place both before and after Pope Francis’s visit, mostly against Catholic places of worship: four arson attacks were reported in the capital, while seven more occurred in the Araucanía, with six Catholic chapels and one Evangelical chapel destroyed. In some cases, pamphlets opposing the papal visit were found. The attacks were linked to the Mapuche, an indigenous people pursuing land claims.[16] Chilean President Bachelet condemned the attacks.[17]

Other attacks against churches included an incident in June 2016 when hooded men burst into a church in central Santiago. They took a religious image of the crucified Christ into the street and broke it into pieces.[18] In September 2017 a youth found guilty of damaging a national monument and desecrating sacred objects was convicted.[19] In July 2016 two exterior images of the Cathedral of Melipilla were desecrated and in January 2018, a group of armed individuals entered a Schoenstatt shrine where they threatened some nuns and stole the Virgin’s crown.[20]

During the period under review, traditional religious festivals were celebrated, including the Fiesta de la Tirana, which incorporates religion and Andean worldview,[21] and the pilgrimage to the Virgin de Lo Vásquez in December, which required the deployment of police and road safety staff. The shrine is located half-way down the highway that connects Santiago to Valparaíso.[22]

In May 2018, the Appeal Court in Temuco rejected the writ of amparo (protection) filed by the
jailed Machi (Shaman) Celestino Córdova against the Chilean Gendarmerie for denying him a
leave of absence to participate in a Mapuche ritual.[23]

In May 2018, it was reported that a group of lawmakers planned to present a bill in Congress that would require priests to reports crimes of which they had knowledge.[24]

Prospects for freedom of religion

During the period under review, attacks against Churches continued. In the central region, attacks were apparently linked to criticism of the Catholic Church. In the Araucanía, they seem to be connected to the conflict over land claims involving the Mapuche people. However, some observers believe that extremist groups have seized on this issue, taking advantage of the situation in an effort to destabilise the social order. Most Mapuche are Christians who are affected by the attacks. Other violent and non-violent acts have been reported in connection with religious matters, unrelated to the Mapuche cause. This is indicative of a climate of intolerance on the part of both believers and non-believers. Police have prosecuted violent acts and courts have tried cases.

There are also some positive signs with respect to religious tolerance. Traditional festivals and grassroots religious celebrations continue to take place in public. The Association of Inter-religious Dialogue for Human Development was created with government support. Even though attacks against churches have persisted, most of them have been concentrated in one region and are not representative of the general climate of respect and peaceful coexistence among religions in the country. Stopping attacks against places of worship and other religious sites remains a challenge that the state must meet to ensure freedom of religion across the country.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Chile’s Constitution of 1980 with Amendments through 2015,,, (accessed 1st July 2018).

[2] Ley Nº19.638 que establece normas sobre la constitución jurídica de las iglesias y organizaciones religiosas, República de Chile, articles 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 20, https://www., (accessed 17th May 2018).

[3] Ley Nº 20.609 que establece medidas contra la discriminación, República de Chile, article 2, https://www., (accessed 17th May 2018).

[4] Ley Nº 21.030 que regula la despenalización de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo en tres causales, República de Chile, article 1, nº 3, https://www., (accessed 17th May 2018).

[5] “Proyecto de acuerdo que “Modifica el Reglamento de la Cámara de Diputados, para suprimir la invocación a Dios en la apertura de sesiones de Sala y comisiones’”, Centro UC Derecho y Religión, October 2016., (accessed 18th March 2018).

[6] “Te Deum evangélico: Ceremonia estará centrada en proyecto de matrimonio igualitario y Ley de Aborto”’, T13, 10th September 2017, Ley-aborto, (accessed 18th March 2018); M. C. Romero y J. Peña, “Bachelet en Tedeum Evangélico: Expertos analizan reacción de la Presidenta por tensa ceremonia”,, 11th September 2017,, (accessed 22 May 2018); “Obispo evangélico anuncia que enviará carta de desagravio a Bachelet tras Te Deum”, T13, 11th September 2017,, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[7] Oficina Nacional de Asuntos Religiosos, “Código de Ética para el diálogo en la convivencia democrática”, 1ª edición 2017,,, (accessed 11th June 2018).

[8] “Lanzamiento de ADIR marca hito histórico de diálogo interreligioso en Chile”, September 2017,,, (accessed 1st July 2018).

[9] P. Valenzuela y N. Guzmán, “Iglesias Evangélicas reiteran rechazo al aborto y piden recuperar confianza en instituciones”, Economía y Negocios on line, 14th September 2015,, (accessed 23rd May 2018); Comité Permanente de la Conferencia Episcopal de Chile, Observaciones al ‘Proyecto de Ley que despenaliza la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo en tres causales, 14th August 2017,,, (accessed 23rd May 2018); “Sentencia del Tribunal Constitucional que aprueba el proyecto de Ley de despenalización voluntario del embarazo en tres causales y rechaza requerimiento de inconstitucionalidad presentado por un grupo de Senadores (extracto)”, Boletín Jurídico del Observatorio de libertad religiosa de América Latina y El Caribe, August 2017, pp. 34-45,, (accessed 23rd May 2018); Ley Nº21.030 que regula la despenalización de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo en tres causales (Chile), https://www., (accessed 23rd May 2018).

[10] “A. Protocolo para la manifestación de objeción de conciencia personal y para la objeción de conciencia invocada por instituciones en el marco de lo dispuesto en el artículo 119 ter del Código Sanitario”, Boletín Jurídico del Observatorio de libertad religiosa de América Latina y El Caribe, January 2018, pp. 29-40,, (accessed 23rd May 2018); “A. Recurso de Protección presentado por la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile contra el Ministerio de Salud…”, pp. 42-46, “C. Recurso de Protección presentado por la Clínica Alemana de Osorno contra el Ministerio de Salud…”, pp. 53-58, “E. Norma Técnica Nacional de ‘Acompañamiento y atención integral a la mujer que se encuentra en alguna de las tres causales que regula la Ley 21.030’ del Ministerio de Salud (extracto)”, pp. 65-69, “F. Nuevo “Protocolo para la manifestación de objeción de conciencia según lo dispuesto en el artículo 119 ter del Código Sanitario’ que deja sin efecto el Protocolo aprobado el 22 de enero de 2018 (Resolución nº61 exenta)”, pp. 70-78, in Boletín Jurídico del Observatorio de libertad religiosa de América Latina y El Caribe, February-March 2018,, (accessed 23rd May 2018); I. Caro, P. Catena y C. Aninat, 17th “Contraloría anula protocolo de objeción de conciencia por aborto”, 9th May 2018,, (accessed 1st July 2018).

[11] Ley Nº 21.051, República de Chile, artículo único, https://www., (accessed 30th May 2018); Ley Nº21.065, República de Chile, artículo único, https://www., (accessed 30th May 2018).

[12] P. Wächter, “Chile: el viaje que complicó al Papa Francisco”, t13.clSemanal,, (accessed 31st May 2018); “¡Hasta luego Francisco! Así fue la visita del Papa por Chile”ʼ, Francisco en, 2018,, (accessed 31st May 2018).

[13] “Con una cruz de 10 metros recibirán al Pontífice en Iquique”, El Mercurio, 16th January 2018,, (accessed 17th January 2018).

[14] A. González, “Incendian templo evangélico tras desalojarlo a balazos en Padre Las Casas”, 9th June 2016, Biobio Chile,, (accessed 6th June 2018); C/Alfredo Herlado Tralcal Coche y otros, R.U.C: 1600553093-1, R.I.T: 004/2018, Tribunal oral en Lo Penal de Temuco, 27th April 2018, Boletín Jurídico del Observatorio de libertad religiosa de América Latina y El Caribe, April 2018, pp. 34-40 (extracto),, (accessed 6th June 2018).

[15] “Queman tres iglesias en nuevos ataques en La Araucanía”,, 20th September 2017,, (accessed 6th June 2018).

[16] “Grupo ataca tres iglesias durante la madrugada a días de la visita del Papa a Chile”,, 12th January 2018,, (accessed 31st May 2018); F. Delgado, “Iglesia de Puente Alto sufrió ataque incendiario durante la madrugada”, Biobio Chile, 16th January 2018,, (accessed 31st May 2018); V. Fuentes, S. Henríquez y V. Vega, “En medio del despliegue de 4.100 policías queman tres iglesias y una escuela en la IX Región”, 17th January 2018,, (accessed 17th January 2018).

[17] J.M. Wilson, “Bachelet pide vivir visita en ‘clima de respeto’”, La Segunda, 13th January 2018,, (accessed 31st May 2018).

[18] “Encapuchados roban y destruyen un Cristo de la Iglesia de la Gratitud Nacional”, T13, 9th June 2016,, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[19] “Sentencian a joven que destrozó imagen de Cristo de emblemática iglesia en Chile”, Aciprensa, 21st September 2017,, (accessed 17th May 2018).

[20] “Comunicado del Obispo de Melipilla ante la profanación de imágenes religiosas en la Catedral”, Boletín Jurídico del Observatorio de libertad religiosa de América Latina y El Caribe, July 2016, pp. 34-35,, (accessed 11th June 2018); T. Cerna y N. Espinoza, “Asaltan Santuario Nacional de Schoenstatt y roban histórica corona de la Virgen”, El Mercurio, 19th January 2018,, (accessed 19th January 2019)

[21] “Fiesta de la Tirana”,, (accessed 7th June 2018).

[22] Santuario Purísima de lo Vásquez,, (accessed 31st May 2018); “Peregrinación a Lo Vásquez: dos drones se suman a la vigilancia de Carabineros”, 6th December 2017,,, (accessed 31st May 2018).

[23] “Sentencia de la Corte de Apelaciones de Temuco que rechiza el recurso de amparo presentado por el machi Celestino Córdova –actualmente condenado a presidio-, contra Gendarmería por negarle el permiso a salir para participar en ceremonia religiosa (extracto)”, Boletín Jurídico del Observatorio de libertad religiosa de América Latina y El Caribe, May 2018, pp. 37-49,, (accessed 6th June 2018).

[24] “Buscan que sacerdotes estén obligados a denunciar los delitos de los cuales tomen conocimiento”, 29th May 2018, CNN Chile,, (accessed 6th June 2018).

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