Calls for Colombia to protect religious freedom

An aerial view of the town of Villa de Leyva, in Boyaca, Colombia.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

A bill has been presented in Colombia to remove punishments for crimes relating to violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

Earlier this month, Colombia's Minister of Justice, Néstor Ozuna, accepted a Senate committee proposal to remove language addressing crimes against religious sentiment and respect for the dead from legislation. 

Proponents argue that the changes will make the criminal system more humane and streamlined, and reduce overcrowding in prisons and police stations.

However, religious leaders and human rights defenders fear that the changes will leave religious groups in rural areas and conflict zones even more vulnerable, and make it harder for them to take legal action.

FoRB expert and Senator Lorena Ríos Cuellar has argued that abolishing these crimes will have a negligible effect as there were only 10 FoRB-related complaints in 2018, according to figures from the Public Prosecutor's office.

Anna Lee Stangl, Head of Advocacy at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said she was "perplexed" as to why Colombian senators are seeking to eliminate crimes that are "already severely underreported and rarely investigated".

"This will put members of religious groups in rural areas and conflict zones who experience a disproportionate percentage of these types of crimes in an even more vulnerable position and will reduce rather than increase their recourse to legal remedy," she said.

"CSW is concerned that this is part of a larger pattern on the part of the government which, while recognising the important role the religious sector played in Colombia's peace process, has paid little attention to the way members of religious groups experience serious human rights violations, in many cases linked to FoRB, in its official reports.

"We call on the Colombian government to strengthen existing protections for FoRB and to ensure that these rights are consistently upheld for all."