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Paraguay - Religion

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.8 million (July 2015 estimate). According to the 2002 national census, the most recent survey reporting religious affiliation, 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 6 percent is evangelical Protestant. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovahs Witnesses, Jews, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Muslims, Buddhists, Mennonites, the Unification Church, and adherents of indigenous tribal beliefs. Members of the Mennonite Church, estimated between 135,000 to 150,000, are prominent in the remote areas of the central Chaco and some regions of the eastern part of the country.

The constitution gives individuals the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion, and prohibits religious discrimination. It specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely. The constitution states that relations between the state and the Catholic Church shall be based on independence, cooperation, and autonomy. The government requires all religious groups to register with the Vice Ministry of Worship (VMW). Some religious groups expressed concern that the government disproportionately supported Catholic schools and did not pay many of the teachers in registered, non-Catholic religious schools.

The Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) continued to pay the salaries of hundreds of teachers in registered schools run by religious groups, most of which are Catholic. Some non-Catholic religious groups stated that the government disproportionately supported Catholic schools and did not pay a sufficient number of teachers in registered, non-Catholic religious schools. The VMW reportedly responded to these concerns and directed its staff to draft legislative proposals to address this discrepancy.

A papal decree created the Bishopric of Asuncion in 1547, and the first bishop arrived in the diocese in 1556. In 1588 three Jesuits came with the intent of pacifying and converting the Indians. After the arrival of additional Jesuits and Franciscans, the priests began working in the southeastern area of modern Paraguay and on the shores of the Rio Parana in parts of what is now Argentina and Brazil.

The Jesuits soon realized that they had to protect the Indians from enslavement by the growing numbers of Spanish and Portuguese if they were going to convert them. They accomplished this by settling the Indians in reducciones (townships) under Jesuit direction. At one point about 100,000 Indians lived in the reducciones; the system lasted a century and a half until the Jesuits' expulsion (1767). Following the end of the Jesuit regime, the reduccion Indians were gradually absorbed into mestizo society or returned to their indigenous way of life.

Church-state relations reached their nadir with the execution of the bishop of Asuncion, Manuel Antonio Palacio, during the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70). By the war's end, there were only fifty-five priests left in the country, and the church was left leaderless for eleven years. The modern Paraguayan church was established largely under the direction ofJuan Sinforiano Bogaron (archbishop of Asuncion, 1930-49) and Anibal Mena Porta (archbishop of Asuncion, 1949-69). Both envisioned a church whose role in the country's endemic political struggles was that of a strictly neutral mediator among the rival factions.

Starting in the late 1950s, the clergy and bishops were frequently at odds with the government. Confrontations began with individual priests giving sermons calling for political freedom and social justice. The activities of the clergy and various lay groups like Catholic Action (Accion Catolica) pushed the church hierarchy to make increasingly critical statements about the regime of Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda (president since 1954).

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were sporadic student demonstrations and government crackdowns. The church criticized the lack of political freedom and the government's human rights record. The government's principal countermeasures included expelling foreign-born clergy and periodically closing the university, news magazine, and radio station. In response, the archbishop of Asuncion excommunicated various prominent government officials and suspended Catholic participation at major civic and religious celebrations.

On a popular level, Catholicism was an essential component of social life. Even the poorest of homes contained pictures of the saints and a family shrine. Catholic ritual marked the important transitions in life: baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial. Participation in the rites of the church reflected class and gender expectations. The poor curtailed or delayed rituals because of the costs involved. Sex roles also affected religious participation. Devotion fell into the female sphere of activities. Men were not expected to show much concern about religion. If they attended mass, it was infrequently, and normally men stood in the rear of the church ready to make a quick exit.

The Catholic Church maintained an influential role within society and government and often issued political statements. Politicians often sought support from Church leaders. Some Protestant groups said they observed government favoritism towards the Catholic Church and complained about what they stated was the nonsecular nature of some government offices and public spaces. Several evangelical groups complained about the extent and nature of government support for the three-day visit of Pope Francis in July, stating the government spent approximately $15 to $20 million to prepare, organize, and host the visit. Government officials said Pope Francis is a head of state.

Labor unions and human rights organizations reported discrimination by Mennonite employers, often the predominant source of employment in the remote areas of the Chaco region, who reportedly continued to favor indigenous laborers who had converted to the Mennonite faith over those who had not. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated indigenous laborers were not able to file labor discrimination complaints based on religious affiliation because there were few government offices in the Chaco region.





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