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Chile: Covid-19 arrests of pastors ruled unconstitutional

September 2020

Tomas Henriquez SOURCE ADF International
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Chilean pastors who were wrongfully arrested for holding worship services during the Covid-19 crisis have won their case setting a precedent for religious freedom.

A court recently ruled that the arrest was unconstitutional and based on an illegal administrative act. They were arrested for allegedly violating Covid-19 health measures which prohibited religious activities. ADF International supported the pastors in their case.

Tomas Henriquez, Director of Advocacy for Latin America & Caribbean for ADF International, said, ‘We welcome this decision by Chilean courts to set a precedent for religious freedom.

‘The pastors adhered to all of the Covid-19 health regulations while holding religious services. They were targeted by health authorities and arbitrarily arrested based on unconstitutional restrictions on religious services.

‘Though health regulations are in place, there is no ban on religious services. This would be a grave violation of the fundamental rights Chile is committed to in a range of international human rights agreements and in its constitution.

‘This decision marks a precedent for Chile in protecting the right to freedom of religion from prohibitions on public worship under the pretence of extraordinary circumstances.’

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chilean government announced a state of emergency. In several regions, local governments issued orders specifically prohibiting religious activities.

Although legal challenges were rejected by the courts, health officials nevertheless reversed course and withdrew the unlawful orders against worship after negative press coverage and public pressure – allowing church doors to open once more.

At least two pastors were arrested for holding allegedly illegal religious services.

Recently a high court confirmed that the constitution demands from the State not to perturb, threaten, or restrict the exercise of religious freedom and must secure free exercise to all persons without distinction. This explicitly includes the right to worship publicly and hold meetings.

It also concluded that the resolution instated in March that prohibited religious activities was unconstitutional since the constitution only allows for restrictions to but not suspension of religious freedom. As the pastors were arrested under this resolution, their arrests were recognised as illegal.