International Institute for Religious Freedom

Insights from three key reports on Religious Freedom in Indigenous Communities



At almost the same time, three major players in the religious freedom field published reports on the situation of FoRB in indigenous communities: Indigenous Peoples and the right to freedom of religion or belief (10 October 2022, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief); Religious Freedom For Indigenous Communities in Latin America (7 June 2023, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom); Indigene Völker und ihr Recht auf Religions- und Weltanschauungsfreiheit (22 November 2023, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany).

The International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF), in partnership with the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America (OLIRE), has proactively contributed to all three reports, submitting our own input, and speaking with the authors. In the case of the USCIRF report, researchers connected to the IIRF and OLIRE were awarded the research grant to write the report directly.

The growing interest in FoRB in indigenous communities in Latin America and the world is timely. As the IIRF’s International Director, Dr. Dennis P. Petri, explains in his book The Specific Vulnerability of Religious Minorities (2021), for years, the issue had been completely ignored, despite the alarm bells that were sounded by several grassroots faith organizations as well as indigenous interest groups. Among other factors, the absence of reliable information about religious freedom violations in indigenous communities, as well as an insufficient conceptualization of the complex nature of these violations, can be cited as reasons for this lack of interest. Perhaps another factor was that the focus of the international community had been on the preservation of the cultural rights of indigenous communities and the promotion of indigenous self-determination, and much less on religious rights.

Considering the former, we welcome the most recent report by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany, authored by former UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB, Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt and Dr. Volker von Bremen. It effectively highlights some major concerns regarding FoRB in indigenous communities, and therefore makes an important contribution to raising public awareness of the issue. In particular, it argues convincingly that the connection between indigenous peoples and their ancestral territories must be understood as part of freedom of religion and belief. It also underlines that this notion should be actively considered in foreign and development policy.

The German report echoes prior research from the IIRF that highlighted the collective and individual dimensions of religious freedom in indigenous communities in Latin America. The first receives much attention, but the second is often ignored or misunderstood but particularly important to religious minorities living in indigenous communities. Collective religious rights protect the religious freedom of indigenous communities as a group against what is perceived as “external threats”: environmental damages to indigenous lands, restrictions on traditional burial rites and proselytism by missionaries belonging to Western religions, including Evangelical missionaries (yes, the activity of missionaries is often viewed as a threat to the preservation of indigenous cultures; it is of course also part of the right to religious freedom). The individual dimension of religious freedom refers to the possibility of individual indigenous people to convert and turn away from their ancestral religion and freely practice their new religion. Many who do face serious abuse receive little recognition although it has been very well documented.

Image: Photo by Fernando Allen