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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

The preamble to the constitution[1] invokes God’s protection with regard to the establishment of a democratic society that upholds rights including freedom from discrimination. Article 59 of the constitution declares that “the state guarantees freedom of cult and religion.” The article states that everyone has the “right to profess their religious faith or creed and to manifest their beliefs, in private or in public, through teaching or other practices, provided they are not contrary to morality, good customs and public order.” The independence and autonomy of churches and religious denominations are also guaranteed. Parents have the right to educate their children according to their beliefs.

Article 61 upholds freedom of conscience and expression. That said, it states that conscientious objection cannot be invoked to avoid complying with the law.

All forms of discrimination at work are prohibited on the basis of creed, according to article 89.

The state recognises the rights of indigenous peoples under article 119 of the constitution including their right to religious liberty. 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 also upheld elsewhere in the country’s constitution and legislation.[2]

The constitution, in article 97, also acknowledges 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, according to article 98. Under article 100, the religious education of indigenous children and adolescents is the responsibility of their parents, relatives and members of their people. Article 107 protects indigenous people against political and religious fanaticism.

Other laws [3] recognise 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 own religion or beliefs, and use their own language, especially those who belong to ethnic, religious or indigenous minorities. In the field of education,[4] the state declares itself to be secular, preserving its independence with respect to all religions. Parents are given the right to choose their children’s religious education.

In accordance with the fiscal reform of 2014,[5]  tax exemptions for institutions dedicated to religious, artistic, scientific and other activities have been eliminated. Such exemptions are now restricted to charity and social welfare organisations. The Penal Code[6] categorises types of conduct that threaten freedom of worship. Article 168 concerns punishment of people who attempt to prevent or disturb religious services or ceremonies or intentionally damage items used in worship. Churches are also recognised as legal entities.[7] Under an agreement with the Holy See, signed in 1964, the Catholic Church is recognised as an international and public legal entity.[8] In 1994, another agreement was signed with the Holy See regarding the provision of spiritual assistance in the Armed Forces.[9]


In July 2016, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela (CBCV) stated that the country was on the verge of a crisis because of food shortages and lack of medicine and other healthcare. The bishops declared that the rule of law had been weakened and that democracy had broken down. It called on the government to allow medicines into the country, offering its facilities as collection and distribution points.[10]

In December 2016, the CBCV president criticised the government’s economic policies. Noting that the poor and marginalised were the most disadvantaged, it called for solidarity and peaceful protests.[11] The Andrés Bello Catholic University said in April 2017 that it could not remain silent about the violation of human rights, calling on the government to end its repression of peaceful demonstrations.[12]

In May 2017, the CBCV rejected President Nicolás Maduro’s proposal to set up a National Constituent Assembly, considering it unnecessary and dangerous for democracy. The bishops called instead for non-violent solutions. Religious leaders were invited to participate in the assembly, with some Church leaders agreeing to take part and others turning down the opportunity. The Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela stated that it had an apolitical position, and called for initiatives to be taken in accordance with the law, ethics and morals.[13]

In August 2016, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, responded to a request made by the Union of South American Nations (USAN), which includes Argentina, Peru, Guyana, Suriname, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, asking the Pope Francis to facilitate dialogue between the government and the opposition. Jesús Torrealba, secretary general of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (DUR), an alliance opposed to the government, said that he was happy for the Pope to mediate. The Vatican’s special envoy to Venezuela, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, met with President Maduro in November 2016, stressing that the crisis could only be resolved through dialogue.[14] The following June, through the Apostolic Nunciature, President Maduro’s government requested the mediation of Pope Francis.[15]

During the period under review, there have been acts of vandalism, although the motives behind the violence is not entirely clear. In June 2016, the parish priest in Guarenas was hurt during a raid on his church in which some sacred objects were desecrated and others were stolen.[16] In January 2018, the Sagrada Familia Church was robbed and sacrilegious acts were carried out. The aggressors forced open the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament and stole valuable items used in daily services. According to a media report, the attack may have been carried out by so-called santeros or spiritualists, who use these objects in their ceremonies.[17] In the days leading up to Holy Week 2018, a 500-kilogram bell was stolen from a church in the city of Cumaná.[18]

In July 2016, five students from the Mérida Catholic Seminary were beaten and stripped of their belongings and clothes as they travelled near the site of a rally which was due to be held shortly. The wife of a political prisoner was thought likely to take part in the protest. Archbishop Baltazar Porras of Mérida denounced the attack, criticising pro-government groups.[19] In August 2017, at dawn one morning, members of State Security burst into the Cristo Rey student residence run by the religious community of the Daughters of Christ the King.[20]

In November 2017, a group of people entered the Basilica of Our Lady of Consolation, in Táriba, and prevented Mass from taking place. They used the High Altar to count votes.[21]

In September 2017, President Maduro accused some Catholic bishops of being complicit in violence. During his regular Sunday broadcast, the president said: “violent people acted with the blessing of some bandit bishops who do not protect the people, who do not walk like Christ in the streets of the people, who do not suffer, who do not share solidarity with the people, but who are part of a permanent conspiracy and wear the robe to conspire and damage the country.”[22]

In January 2018, the president also accused Catholic leaders of boycotting the canonisation of Dr José Gregorio Hernández, known as “the saint of the poor”.[23]

That same month, a group of people representing civil society, protested peacefully in Barquisimeto, rejecting the government’s accusations against the representatives of the Catholic Church.[24] President Maduro accused two bishops of “hate crimes”, asking the Supreme Court of Justice to open an investigation against the prelates.[25]

In February 2017, representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela met with President Maduro. They told him anti-Semitic sentiment was increasing. They also highlighted the disparaging comments made about Israel in the media close to the ruling party and insisted on the need to re-establish relations with the State of Israel.[26]

In September of 2017, Venezuelan bishops met with Pope Francis during his visit to Colombia. They informed him about the worsening crisis and the threats against priests and nuns.[27]

In October of 2017, a media opinion piece looked at the situation of religious freedom in Venezuela. It noted that there were no restrictions with respect to attending Mass, visiting a place of worship or taking part in processions. The media piece claimed that “the Church has been systematically denouncing the various forms of violation of religious freedom, sometimes brutal or veiled, in the entire world.” The author added that “Pressures are imposed on parishes and dioceses, judicial proceedings are initiated against representatives of the Church, images of Catholic worship are demolished, profaned or mutilated and threats are threatened in all forms” [28]

Christians from different traditions continued their dialogue. Various initiatives took place in October 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.[29] Reports emerged in November 2017 that prisons had been ordered from “high up” to prevent clergy from visiting inmates.[30]

In November 2017, a news report highlighted the renewed emigration of Venezuelan Jews. More than half of the Jewish community has reportedly left as a result of the country’s financial crisis. The exodus had increased in response to the anti-Semitism present at the highest echelons of government as well as from state agencies including officials working at the tax administration office.[31] David Bittan, lawyer and former president of the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela (CAIV), said: “There is no census. It is irresponsible to give a figure, but the perception is that in the last 10 or 12 years more than 50 percent have left.” A former president of CAIV, Abraham Levy said: “The decision to migrate is always personal. Migration can occur in the same proportion among non-Jews, who are affected by insecurity, concerns about their children, political instability and inflation. However, there is no reason why relations with Israel have been broken, and that it is an element of weighty concern”. The report also refers to the actions of Mr Maduro, the president, when he was foreign minister in January 2009. At that time, he expelled the ambassador of Israel in Venezuela and declared him a persona non grata.

In March 2018, Father José Palmar became the third priest of Venezuelan origin to go into exile. The other clergymen forced to leave are Pedro Freites, in April 2017, and Alexander Hernández, in January 2018.[32]

Several religious organisations have criticised government bureaucrats for not approving their statutes promptly. Some religious groups have received preferential treatment because of their support for government policy.[33]

In March 2018, Sam Brownback, the US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, referred to the difficulties facing Venezuela’s Catholic bishops who were criticised by President Maduro for talking about the country’s crisis.[34]

Prospects for freedom of religion

Despite having largest oil reserve in the world, Venezuela is mired in deep political, social and economic crisis, including shortages of food and medicine and crime at record levels. The Catholic Church has persistently spoken out, calling for an end to government repression and violence. This has led to ongoing confrontation with the authorities who have responded by accusing some bishops of being involved in conspiracies to commit violence. Some bishops have been investigated against by the government. Priests have been threatened, attacked and prevented from performing their pastoral duties such as visiting those who have been detained. A few priests have been forced into exile. Delays and bureaucratic obstacles have been reported in relation to the registration of religious entities not supported by the government.

The government has also been accused of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, in light of attacks and sacrilegious acts against places of worship, there is a perception of less tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others. There are reports indicating that a large number of Jews have left the country seeking a better life and because of rising intolerance directed at their community.

Compared to the previous period, the situation of freedom of religion in Venezuela has ostensibly worsened and the outlook for the coming years is negative.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)’s Constitution of 1999 with Amendments through 2009,,, (accessed 11th July 2018).

[2] Ley Orgánica de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas de 2005,, (accessed 31st May 2018).

[3] Ley Orgánica para la protección de niños, niñas y adolescentes de 2007, (, (accessed 31st May 2018).

[4] Ley Orgánica de Educación de 2009, art. 7. Website suspended,, (accessed 31st May 2018, suspended a few days later).

[5] Decreto con Rango, Valor y Fuerza de Ley N°1.435, 17 November 2014, art 1, Gaceta Oficial No. 6.152, 18 November 2014., (accessed 4th June 18)

[6] Código Penal de Venezuela de 2000, Organization of American States,, (accessed 4th June 18)

[7] Código Civil de Venezuela de 1982, art. 19N°2, Organization of American States,, (accessed 4th June 18)

[8] Convenio celebrado entre la República de Venezuela y la Santa Sede Apostólica de 1964, Gaceta Oficial Nº 27.551, 24th September 1964,, (accessed 9th July 2018).

[9] Acuerdo entre La Santa Sede y la República de Venezuela para la creación de un Ordinariato Militar, Secretariat of State, Vatican,, (accessed 31st May 18).

[10] “Exhortación de la Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana Centésima Sexta Asamblea Plenaria Ordinaria ‘El Señor ama a quien busca la justicia’ (Prov. 15, 9)”, Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana, 12th July 2016,, (accessed 18th April 2018).

[11] “Mensaje de la Presidencia de la Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana ante la crisis que golpea a Venezuela”, Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana, 17th December 2016,, (accessed 18th April 2018).

[12] “La UCAB exige el cese a la represión y criminalización de las manifestaciones pacíficas (Comunicado)”, Confirmado, 12th April 2017,, (accessed el 18th April 2018).

[13] “Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana: No reformar la Constitución sino cumplirla”, Prodavinci, 5th May 2017,, (accessed 28th April 2018); “Consejo Evangélico de Venezuela desmintió apoyo a la Constituyente (+Comunicado)”, Caraota Digital, 11th May 2017,, (accessed 18th April 2018); “Comunicado CAIV 11-05-2017- sobre la situación en Venezuela”,, 11th May 2017,, (accessed 10th July 18)

[14] “Claudio María Celli advierte: ‘Si fracasa el dialogo, puede haber un baño de sangre en Venezuela”, Religión Digital, 6th November 2016,, (accessed 8th July 2018).

[15] “Mientras Maduro solicita mediación del papa Francisco, el Vaticano pide elecciones en Venezuela”, CNN Latinoamerica, 14th June 2017,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[16] “Herido sacerdote en asalto de antisociales a una iglesia”, La Voz, 26th June 2016,, (accessed 9th July 2018).

[17] H. Boscán, “FOTOS: Hasta las hostias hurtaron de la iglesia de Los Rastrojos”, El IMPULSO.COM, 17th January 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[18] “Roban campana de 500 kg en iglesia de Venezuela”, Plano Informativo, 1st April 2018,, (accessed 1st April 2018).

[19] R. A. Pérez, “Venezuela: Desnudan y humillan a seminaristas”, Aleteia, 2nd July 2016,, (accessed 13th April 2018).

[20] “Carta del Arzobispo de Valencia al SEBIN ante irrupción en casas de las hijas de Cristo Rey”, Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana, 8th August 2016,, (accessed 18th April 2018).

[21] M. Arenas, “Venezuela y una insólita profanación: Convierten un altar en mesa electoral”, Aleteia, 21st November 2017,, (accessed 13 April 2018).

[22] E. Delgado, “Táchira: Moronta rechaza acusaciones contra obispos venezolanos”, El Nacional, 22nd September 2017, , (accessed 11th April 2018); “Los violentos actuaron en el país con la bendición de los obispos”, Ultima Hora, 17th September 2017,, (accessed on 11th July 2018).

[23] B. Vidal, “Maduro: “Cúpula’ de la Iglesia está en contra de santificar a José Gregorio Hernández”, EL IMPULSO.COM, 9th January 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[24] “Sociedad Civil protesta en Barquisimeto en apoyo a la iglesia católica”, El IMPULSO.COM, 18th January 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[25] “Exigen a Maduro respeto a la libertad religiosa en Venezuela”, Aciprensa, 25 January 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[26] “Comunicado CAIV -21-02-2017- La comunidad judía de Venezuela se reunió con Nicolás Maduro”, (sitio web), 21 febrero 2017,, (accessed 10th July 18)

[27] “Los obispos venezolanos alertaron al papa en Colombia de la ‘agudización de la crisis’ en su país”, Infobae, 8th September 2017,, (accessed 6th April 2018).

[28] M. Arenas, “¿Hay libertad religiosa en Venezuela?”, Aleteia, 28th October 2017,, (accessed 12th April 2018).

[29] “Ecumenismo: noticias de Venezuela”, Focolares, 13th October 2017,, (accessed 10th July 2018).

[30] C. Zapata, “Venezuela: A sacerdotes y obispos les impiden visitar a los presos”, Aleteia, 3rd November 2017,, (accessed 11th April 2018); C. Zapata, “Visito presos políticos como abogado, porque si digo que soy sacerdote no me dejan entrar”, Reporte Católico Laico,, (accessed 10th July 2018).

[31] E. Avendaño, “Adiós Venezuela, dice la comunidad judía”, Climax, 9th November 2017, , (accessed 10th July 2018).

[32] R. A. Pérez, “El Padre Palmar, tercer sacerdote que sale al exilio desde Venezuela”, Aleteia, 14 marzo 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[33] “Cinco países donde practicar la libertad religiosa podría ser peligroso”, Diario Las Américas, 17th August 2017,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

[34] J. Septién, “Hoy es más peligroso que nunca tener fe en muchos países del mundo”, Aleteia, 29 marzo 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018).

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