University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.61, Doc. 47 rev. 1 (1983).





A. General Considerations

1. The Fundamental Statute provides for freedom of conscience and religion, by stipulating that all religions may be freely exercised and by recognizing the churches of all faiths as juridical persons that may acquire, possess and dispose of goods, provided they are used solely for religious, social welfare and educational purposes.2

2. The above provision replaced the rules regarding this right contained in the Guatemalan Constitution of 1965. The repealed Constitution provided in Article 66 that freedom to exercise all religions was guaranteed, and added that any person had the right to practice his religion or belief, both publicly and privately, by means of education, worship and observance, without any other restrictions than peace, morality, public order and due respect for patriotic symbols. Religious associations and groups were prohibited from joining political parties, and ministers of religion were prohibited from serving in political parties.

In addition, Article 67 of the Constitution recognized the Catholic Church and other churches as juridical persons that could acquire, possess and dispose of goods “provided they were used for religious, social welfare or educational purposes.” This provision also stipulated that the immovable property of churches was exempt from taxes, contributions and fees. It also stated that the legal personality of churches would be determined by the rules of their institution and their constitutive bases; and that the State would grant the Catholic Church title to any immovable property it currently possessed and peacefully employed for its own purposes. The Constitution also stipulated that “goods signed over to third parties or to the State had been used for its services could not be affected.”

B. Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Practice

1. The people of Guatemala are free to exercise the religion of their choice and the rule on this right contained in the Fundamental Statute is generally observed and adhered to, although there continued to be delicate problems in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Government of General Ríos Montt.

2. Most of the people of Guatemala are Catholics. However, Catholic priests and other religious personnel have suffered in the recent past from the consequences of the climate of violence that has prevailed in this country in recent years.3 Under General Ríos Montt’s Government, the difficulties between the Catholic Church and the State initially decreased, and according to testimony received by the Commission during its on-site visit, existing tensions began to decline in the urban sectors but serious problems continued in what are known as the rural areas of conflict.

3. Since the coup d’etat of March 1982, the Commission has received no reports of assassination, kidnapping or torture of priests or nuns. However, during the visit of Pope John Paul II, the arrest, torture and murder of the catechist Felipe Caal in the town of Las Canas, Province of Izobol, was made public.

4. In its interviews with Catholic priests, the Commission was informed about some of the Church’s programs, including the establishment of catechist training centers (for lay religious leaders), which have led to the establishment in rural areas of 70 Catholic social action centers, whose main mission is to teach the Catholic religion and work in social action programs to help the poor and Indian communities.

These programs have given rise to considerable resistance among the military and the landowners in the region, which, together with the climate of violence and fear, makes their work difficult. It was precisely because of this situation that the Church in 1982 withdrew all of its clergy from the Quiché area, except for a priest who remained in Santa Cruz de Quiché, the department capital.

5. In May 1982, the Catholic Church denounced the abuses that were being committed against the Indian communities. In that connection, the Episcopal Conference described “the massacre of numerous peasant and Indian families,” in the following terms:


1. We learned about and have verified with deep sorrow the suffering of our people from these massacres, which the mass media has already reported. Numerous families have been viciously murdered. Not even the aged, pregnant women and innocent children have been spared.

2. The consequences of this irrational violence on the survivors cannot be more tragic: orphans, premature widows, insecurity, terror, hunger because of uncultivated land and towns destroyed or abandoned.

3. It is out impression that the people have no exact idea of how many refugees there are in an outside the country, nor the extent of the continuous school dropout of both teachers and students in the interior of the country.


In the face of this harsh reality, the Bishops of Guatemala feel called upon to make the following observations:

1. Never in our national history has there been such grave extremist behavior. These murders have now reached the level of genocide. We must recognize that such events are a major violation of the divine commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”

2. “God, who watches over all with paternal care, wants all men to be a single family and to treat each other as brothers.” (G:S: 24). The most elementary of human rights is the rights to life and personal security. If this fundamental right is not respected, guarded and protected, it will be impossible for us Guatemalans to live in a just and brotherly social order as God wishes. We join our voices with that of Pope John Paul II, who said: “Homicide must be called by its proper name: Homicide is homicide, and political and ideological motives, far from changing its nature, on the contrary, lose their own dignity.” (John Paul II, Day of Peace, January 1, 1980).

3. It grieves us that there are sectors on the extreme right and left who try to justify murder. We recall what we said in a communiqué on May 15, 1980, “Neither the fear of Communism nor the exasperated desire to change current unjust structures can be a pretext or justification to murder one’s brother.” (CEG, May 15, 1980, 3.2).

4. Since Guatemala is a primarily Christian country, it is inconceivable that Guatemalans can destroy each other in an absurd and irrational confrontation, perverting the marvelous order desired by God himself. True peace—as we have repeatedly said in our communiqué and pastoral letters in recent years—can only be achieved through justice and love. It would be truly painful if the words of the Lord that inspired the Prophet Isaiah were to be applied to our country: “This people honors me with its lips, but its heart is far from me.”


1. As Guatemalans and Bishops, we feel a deep obligation to condemn once more the violence that has reached such grave extremes as the massacre of peasants. We hope that every decent Guatemalan will condemn these acts of indescribable barbarism.

2. We feel in our own hearts the grief of so many families stricken unmercifully by this violence, and we ask and urge in the name of God that the lives and personal safety of our peasants be protected. We ask the authorities who are responsible for effectively ensuring the security of persons and the common welfare to investigate these grievous events and not allow the perpetrators to go completely unpunished.

3. We ask our Catholic faithful and all men of good will to contribute with their attitudes in creating a climate of true brotherhood and effective justice. We believe that there is still time to resume to resume our efforts to achieve the just and fraternal social harmony and peace that all decent Guatemalans desire. At this moment of our history—which is full of light and shadows, anguish and hope—we are confident that a Christian concept of life will replace the hate filled ideologies that have caused us so much injury. We hope that, despite these grievous acts, we shall never lose hope of discovering the value of suffering as a prior step to living together in peace as brothers.

6. According to the information the Commission has received, the Church has been subjected to harassment in carrying out its pastoral mission, particularly in the countryside and Indian areas. These documents indicate that foreign missionaries, ministers and nuns who left the country during the regime of the previous government as the only way to save their lives have not in most cases, despite the Government’s statements to the contrary, received permission to return to the country, or they feel that they do not yet have guarantees for resuming their pastoral work. The Commission recognizes the Government’s power to regulate the entry of foreigners into the national territory. It notes, however, that the work of missionaries in Guatemala has been hampered by the immigration authorities, who grant only three-month permits for living and working, which maintains a constant climate of insecurity affecting both missionaries and their superiors. It is noted that a number of members of the Maryknoll and Jesuit orders have been prosecuted with particular severity.

C. The Case of the El Quiché Region

1. In the Department of El Quiché, as was previously mentioned, only one priest remains in his parish. Neither the native or foreign clergy returned to their convents and churches until January 5, 1983, when Bishop Pablo Uriyar and three other priests received their diocesan offices in Santa Cruz del Quiché.

2. It was explained to the Commission that the foregoing was due to the environment of terror in which the religious communities of that Department work, and to what the Commission regards as more serious: the fact that many of the churches, rectories, convents and other religious properties have been burned and sometimes confiscated and occupied by the army.

The following list of church properties occupied by the army in the Department of El Quiché is included as an example:

a. Chupol. The church has been converted into a military barracks.

b. Chichicastenango. The Indian community school for men has been converted into military dormitories.

c. Santa Cruz del Quiché. The Colegio Rosario which was previously run by Dominican nuns has been totally destroyed by Guatemalan troops.

d. Chiche, Chinique and Zacualpa. All municipal capitals; their churches and parochial houses are used periodically by the Guatemalan army, which has the keys to these church properties.

e. Jallobah. The parochial house is now a military barracks. The nuns’ home now is a jail.

f. San Pedro Jacopilas, San Andrés Sajcabaja and Canilla. The army has the keys to the churches and parochial houses and uses these facilities periodically.

g. Sacapulas. The parochial house has been converted into a municipal building.

h. Cunen. The church and the convent are occupied by a military detachment.

i. San Miguel Ospartan. The one square block parochial center is now a military barracks.

j. Neboaj. The church, the educational center and the nuns’ home are now a military barracks.

k. Chajul and Cotzal. The same situation prevails.

l. Ixcan Grande and Ixcan Chiquito. In the forest area of El Quiché, almost all of the chapels, schools, cooperatives and clinics have been destroyed by the army.

3. The Commission has no knowledge to date that the Government has responded to the claims and petitions for return of these properties to their rightful owners and that these denunciations have been clarified, as the seriousness of the situation requires.

D. Religious Polarization

1. The Commission noted during its on-site visit in Guatemala a significant phenomenon that has arisen in the last year, which has a bearing on freedom of conscience and religion, and on which various reports are being received: use of religion as an element of political confrontation.

2. According to the reports, it would appear that polarization of religious faith has occurred between the Catholic church and the traditional Protestant churches on one hand and the fundamentalist sects, especially the Church of the Word, which was beginning to occupy a preponderant place in Guatemalan society. This attitude was reflected in the common practice among the rural poor of converting to one or another fundamentalist Protestant sect, because of the desirability of demonstrating their faith through identity cards.

3. Closely related to the above is the establishment in the towns of what are known as military superintendents, approximately 60 to 70 of whom belong to fundamentalist Protestant sects, as do most municipal mayors. The practice of the sect members of carrying identity cards with them had the obvious purpose of obtaining some degree of security for their bearers in the event of interrogation by military personnel. As noted previously, this has led to the easy transfer from one religion to another, more for the purposes of security than conviction, which obviously implies a threat to the traditional religious tolerance that has prevailed in Guatemala.

4. Catholic Bishops told the Commission that commanders of the militarized zones gave permits for meetings to the Evangelical sects but not to Catholic catechists and also that fundamentalist ministers frequently gave a pronounced anti-Catholic tone to their sermons. Thus, for example, Bishop Mario Enrique Ríos Montt has publicly stated that this polarization and manipulation of religious feelings can have grave consequences for the life of the Guatemalan people and might lead to a religious war that would be more serious than the present political conflict.5

5. The Commission is confident that the Government will take a position of absolute neutrality and supervise the behavior of its subordinate officials in order to avoid aggravating the situation described in the previous paragraphs, which clearly would constitute a limitation for the full exercise of freedom of conscience and religion and would worsen the climate of terror and threat in which that right is currently exercised.




1 Article 12 of the American Convention on Human Rights states as follows: Article 12. Freedom of Conscience and Religion. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and of religion. This right includes freedom to maintain or to change one's religion or beliefs, and freedom to profess or disseminate one's religion or beliefs, either individually or together with others, in public or in private. 2. No one shall be subject to restrictions that might impair his freedom to maintain or to change his religion or beliefs. 3. Freedom to manifest one's religion and beliefs may be subject only to the limitations prescribed by law that are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights or freedoms of others. 4. Parents or guardians, as the case may be, have the right to provide for the religious and moral education of their children or wards that is in accord with their own convictions.

2 Fundamental Statute, Chapter V, Article 23.

3 See the IACHR report on the status of human rights, document OEA/Ser.L/V/II.53 of October 13, 1981, pages 74 and the following, which cite cases and examples of this problem.

5 An obvious fact of the confrontation between the Catholic Church and the Church of the Word was the attitude taken at the time of the execution on March 3, 1983, of six persons condemned by the Special Courts, which was analyzed in the chapter on the right to life. While the Catholic Church protested through the Papal Nuncio and described this act as incredible, the Protestant Church of the Word announced that it supported the executions and also said that the executions that took place a few days before the Papal visit were an unfortunate coincidence.


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