The majority of Venezuelans are Catholic, who coexist with Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and indigenous populations. There has been much tension between the government and Catholic officials and the Jewish community. Freedom of expression, assembly and association have been restricted.

In 2017, Venezuela is undergoing a severe social and political crisis. After 1999, Chavistas (supporters of the socialist government of Hugo Chavez) celebrated efforts to use the state’s massive oil wealth to reduce social inequality. But in recent years, under falling oil prices, soaring inflation and severe shortages of basic goods have prompted massive anti-government protests. Political opposition accuses the government under President Nicolas Maduro (who succeeded Chavez after his death in 2013) of trying to re-write the constitution and take the country toward dictatorship, while the government accuses the opposition of trying to sabotage the government and stage a coup. The authorities have been widely condemned for overreacting to protests, with dozens of civilian protesters killed. Some security service personnel have also been killed in the violence.

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Constitution and government

Article 59 of the Constitution grants protection of religious freedom under the condition that it is not contrary to morality, good customs and public order. However, it also explicitly states that the independence of religious groups are defined by the constitution and law, giving legislature the power to limit their independence. The constitution also limits the political influence of religious organizations by forbidding clergy from running for public office.

Venezuela’s funding system exhibits strong favoritism toward Catholicism, discriminating against other religious groups. There has also been great tension between the government and Catholic Church officials as well as the Jewish community.

Education and children’s rights

A 1964 Concordat between the Venezuelan government and the Catholic Church established special government subsidies for Catholic schools.

There has been a long-running battle over the inclusion and character of religious education in Venezuela’s schools.

Article 59 of the Constitution of Venezuela reads:

“ […] The father and mother have the right to have their sons and daughters receive religious education in accordance with their convictions. “

The Article was incorporated into the Ley Orgánica de Educación, or the Organic Law on Education, which was introduced in 1980:

“Religious education will be taught to students up to the sixth year of basic education, as long as their parents or guardians request it. In this case, two hours per week will be established within the official school hours” (Article 50).

However, in 2009, the Venezuelan National Assembly introduced a controversial Education Law which strengthened the role of the state in education, reducing the scope for religious instruction. After the first draft was approved in 2001, the Catholic Church as well as teachers unions, an association of rectors of public and private universities and privately owned media, organized a campaign against the law. Cardinal Jorge Urosa campaigned with the slogan “Let God stay in schools.” They claimed that the law represented a threat to the sanctity of the family and freedom of religion.

Article 7 of the 2009 law reads:

“The State will maintain in all circumstances its secular character in educational matters, preserving its independence with respect to all religious currents. Families have the right and the responsibility for the religious educations of their sons and daughters, in line with their convictions and in accordance with religious freedom and worship, constitutionally envisaged”.

The law does not explicitly prohibit or promote religious education in schools. The president of the Education Commission in the National Assembly clarified that “religious education in schools is not going to be prohibited, rather it will not be obligatory in the curriculum.”

Family, community and society

Catholic privilege

The government provides much funding to religious organizations, but most of it goes to Catholic institutions including social programs. Other religious groups are free to establish and fund their own. Military chaplains are almost exclusively Catholic.

Tension between the State and Catholic Church

Despite preferential treatment toward Catholics, there has been much tension between church and state. Chávez openly criticized high-profile Catholic clergy for interfering in politics. Though Archbishop Porras of Merida and Bishop Azuaje of El Vigia had helped secure the safety of Chávez during two coups, he accused them of being agents of the opposition. Chávez and other government officials publicly stated that Catholic bishops should refrain from criticizing the government.

Clergy have faced hostility, including threats of prosecutions, confiscation of church properties, harassment and surveillance, most notably phone wiretapping. Even high ranking Church officials can be held for long periods of interrogation by governmental investigators if they publicly criticized official government policy towards the Church.

Within the past few years, national laws passed that would allow ruling-party-dominated “communal councils” to oversee the curriculum, teachers, and school administrators of all public and private schools, including religious schools, as well as the confiscation of Catholic Church property, including churches, schools, and other ecclesiastical buildings.

Tensions between the State and the Jewish community

Media programs sponsored by the government have often made anti-Semitic comments. Venezuela’s Jewish community believed that they would be held accountable for the Israeli government’s actions. Chávez has even explicitly referred members of Venezuela’s Jewish community as enemies. He has been responsible for the revival of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and claimed that Jews are conspiring to destabilize the government. There has been a report of at least one government raid of a Jewish synagogue. Several other groups, including a pro-Chavez one, have attacked or vandalized Jewish synagogues with little repercussion. Anti-Semitism and the rising diplomatic tensions between Israel and Venezuela had led the Jewish community to petition the government to take a more aggressive approach towards anti-Semitism. Chávez responded by suspending relations with Israel in 2009, and met with prominent Jewish leaders and publicly denounced the proliferation of anti-Semitism.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The constitution provides protection for free speech but explicitly exempts this protection for messages that promote religious intolerance. Venezuela has co-sponsored OIC resolutions in the United Nations proposing prohibition of ‘defamation of religion’.

Freedom of Assembly and Association

The Constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly. However, legal amendments have been made that would make it easier to charge protesters with serious crimes. According to the local rights group Provea, at least 10 protesters were subjected to unconstitutional trials within the military justice system in 2012. The government has sought to undermine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other human civil society organizations and questioned their ties to international groups. In December 2010, the parliament passed the Law on Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination that would threaten to give sanctions against any “political organization” that receives foreign funding or hosts foreign visitors who criticize the government. Dozens of civil society activists have been attacked, harassed and faced bureaucratic obstacles to registration. A draft law in the National Assembly would require all NGOs, including religious groups that receive at least 10 percent of foreign funding to obtain approval from the government in advance and give government information on their sources of funding, organizational leadership, and activities.

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