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Symposium 2016: Latin America - Religious Affairs Officials
Image for Symposium 2016: Latin America - Religious Affairs Officials
Photo credit: Dave Christensen

by Gaylee Coverston

Brent Gardner, International Fellow for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies acted as the moderator for this session. The delegates were Emília Patrícia Alfaro de Franco, and her husband Luis Federico Franco Gomez, Ana Maria Celia Brunet and David Frol

Emília Patrícia Alfaro de Franco, National Senator of Paraguay, Vice President of the Association of American Women Politicians and the Latin-American Parliament, President of the Commission on Audit and Control, Vice President of the Commission on Equity and Gender and parliamentary secretary, began the session. She stated that she was here to discuss religious freedom from a political point of view because she has been in the political arena for more than thirty years. Within this political environment, she has seen many sectors of society. One cannot speak of the differences that exist in Paraguay without discussing the Paraguayan culture. Paraguay is known as the heart of America and is characterized by its values of solidarity, fraternity, hospitality, amiability. She gave a brief history of religion in Paraguay. The indigenous people believed in a superior being or a god. The Guarani called their God, Tupa, with his counterpart in evil. She continued to briefly explain the Guarani’s belief system that included a respect for the earth and more. As the conquistadors came they brought the indoctrination of the indigenous people to a form of Catholic beliefs. This also began the Catholic establishment in Paraguay which today boasts 85% of the population as members. Even though Catholicism is the majority in religious devotion, there are Baptist, Presbyterians, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and others, with about 2% of the population undeclared. There exists a very specific relationship between the Catholic religion and the government. During the dictatorship, the practice of any other religion except Catholicism was not permitted. Other religions were persecuted and even exiled during that time. The position of Catholicism in Paraguay went through a change where religious freedom and respect for other religions began to be taught. When the dictatorship was overthrown in 1989 and democracy was instituted, this affected the path of religious freedom in Paraguay for the future. New constitutional and legal protections came with the new form of government. With all these changes the relationship between the state and religion also changed. Now cathedrals and special religious buildings that have great historical significance have become part of the country’s tourism. Tolerance and interreligious coexistence with respect for other religious beliefs has become a part of the religious culture of the country and has received even more attention when Pope Francis visited and participated in an interreligious conference. In congress, there are multiple convictions and religions represented by the senators. With the increase in respect for different religions, a corresponding respect for the culture that created the country has also increased. Each religious group has played its part in simple ways to bring about the democratic nation of Paraguay. The 1992 Paraguayan Constitution, article 24 states that no religion will have an official government position and all are free to choose their own belief system without limitation from the constitution or the law. The State’s relationship with the Catholic church has become separate one from the other. No one will be forced or pressured to adopt any ideology or religious belief. Previously, a person had to be Catholic in order to be the president of Paraguay. This change for greater freedom is fabulous. As a current senator, she is privileged to participate in other international normatives for religious freedom. She discussed the rights for children and the rights of the family regarding religious freedom. She went on to discuss refugee rights and more basic human rights that have been established. Even though Paraguay has come a long way, there are still more efforts to be made. Indigenous cultures still need more protection. However, Paraguay has clearly advanced in its efforts to provide a pluralistic and free society. 

Luis Federico Franco Gomez, former President of Paraguay, spoke next. He introduced himself and gave a short summary of his family and previous position. He presented his topic of plurality and the religious diversity. Paraguay in reality is a paradise. The majority of difficulties faced by other countries do not exist in Paraguay. When America was discovered the only region where the interaction between the creoles and mestizos was harmonious and proportionate was in the area of current Paraguay. Paraguay has practically no fully indigenous peoples. Most of the population of Paraguay are indigenous to some degree. As such, Paraguay is a complete melting pot. There are no real problems with racism, religious discrimination, cultural conflict, etc. Nevertheless, the Catholic church has always been important in the country. He spoke of the Jesuits and their contribution to the country. Paraguay has had most of the same issues as other Latin American countries and still deals with some of them. They don’t have any issues stemming from Middle Eastern conflicts. They have citizens who profess the Muslim faith, but have not seen or felt discrimination in Paraguay. Non-Catholic religions have universities and elementary and secondary educational facilities and they have government protection for their existence. All religions have space in the public arena of life. He indicated that when it comes to the political races in Paraguay, he asks himself, “What is more important? To win an election, become president or to work for a better future?” He would prefer to lose an election than to lose his God, his family, and his principles. He spoke briefly of LGBT issues indicating that he has many homosexual friends. But he doesn’t believe that the government should be involved in this issue. This is an issue of religion not state. We can all be tolerant of one another, however, tolerance is does not mean agreement, it means respect. He ended with a quote from his favorite Pope Benedict XVI, “It is an intellectual and human duty to respect the dissenting opinion of another.” 

Ana Maria Celia Brunet, Law Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and President of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies, followed the former President of Paraguay. Professor Brunet posed the question, what space does religion and the spiritual have in a constitution? This topic pertains to the current situation in Chile as the country is reforming the constitution. How does the concept of religion and spirituality affect how we treat the wording of the constitution? This question fundamentally speaks to the needs of the individual to express his spirituality and also the requirements of the state to deal fairly and protect these rights. Total religious liberty exists when respect for different religious ideals are encouraged in both the state and religions in general. There needs to be collaboration within the state to achieved a separation of state and religion, a secularity that still offers religiosity in public spaces. Religious freedom needs to be understood institutionally as well. Religion reflects individual and collective identities and these identities reflect cultural characteristics. Religion is a family right and an individual right. Families should have authority over the religious teachings they wish their children to have. It is recognized that in Chile the Catholic religion holds a majority in terms of members. Certainly, the Catholic church has a greater presence in the public space of Chile, due to its historical contribution. This is a problem faced in many Latin American Countries and is currently posing issues in Brazil. In Latin America, the constitutions of each country are not the same and cannot be. Secularism needs to be defined by the country creating the constitution. It is a fragile balance. First, the preamble of the constitution reflects the values and ideals of the state or government as a whole. It also set out fundamental rights for the people. When discussing religious freedom, the points of free thought, religious choice and freedom to participate and hold religious services accordingly must be addressed. In the current process of going through the constitution, the understanding and determination of what is needed has been painstaking. The terms of secular state and secularism has had different meanings in each of the countries pursuing religious freedom. Citizens of Chile had to vote on terms and what they mean for the people and for the judicial system and religious organizations. The more the state and religious organizations work together the more that a spiritual life has its place is a social sphere.

Following Ana Maria Celia Brunet, David Frol, Legal Coordinator of the South America South/Chile Area for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presented his thoughts. David Frol thanked the law school for the experience of being at the symposium. He introduced the subject of coexistence in Argentina. He, then, showed a video of pictures that explore the idea of macro coexistence and micro coexistence. The research that he did regarding micro coexistence added to the concept of religious freedom. He also mentioned religious symbols as a means of religious expression. In 2013, there were more than 400 acts of religious violence against religious symbols. The question he posed was, what impact did these incidents have? What was the purpose or the message those who committed these acts wanted to portray? Some of the acts of violence against religious symbols or buildings could not be verified. In the last year, he personally had to deal with an act of violence against a window of the church and had to change the window because of vandalism. What is the impact on a religious people when they find their religious location violated or vandalized? Finally, one of the concepts he wanted to share is that we are facing a phenomenon that the chosen instrument to protest religiosity has been vandalism against religious symbols. Have these incidents increased or have they stayed the same? Those who have zero tolerance publish everything and this has helped him have precise data. Others try to deal by staying silent. Publicity often will increase incidents. He also mentioned his surprise at the incidents in micro coexistence, those suffered in neighborhoods. If we look inside ourselves, we can work in this area to try to mitigate violence of this nature and improve coexistence both in the micro and macro arenas.