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By Rafael Cardona

06/26/2017 Washington, DC (International Christian Concern) – On June 9, 2017, Colombia’s Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Rivera Florez, signed and issued Resolution 0889 (RES-0889), which outlines how Colombia’s federal government will take measurable steps to incorporate religious entities and organizations into the civil and social decision-making processes in years to come. The resolution is designated as a política publica, a form of public policy in Colombia that carries significant executive weight, especially in determining the overarching political values the state pursues and how regulations are administered to promote them.

Specifically, RES-0889 creates visible mechanisms to formally include religious organizations in public discourse. Those mechanisms are called Mesas (the equivalent of a bureau or a board) and each of Colombia’s 32 departments (or states) will have a Mesa comprised of various religious groups and representatives from within their respective jurisdictions. The Mesas are, essentially, a gathering place for collaboration, sharing ideas, public discourse, and solving department-specific problems, particularly how religious groups interact with other entities like schools, civil organizations, local governments, etc. The Mesas then submit reports to a national Mesa, overseen by the Minister of the Interior, who then considers, implements, and executes regulation according to the submitted recommendations.

Aside from the bureaucratic complex it creates, why is the resolution significant or innovative?

In the broader context, the issuance of RES-0889 is an important landmark in the development and advancement of religious freedom in the country. Article 19 of the Colombian Constitution (1991) guarantees the right of religious expression. That article is supplemented by Ley 133 (1994), a statutory law that prevents the establishment of a national religion, recognizes diversity of creeds and beliefs, and denounces religious discrimination.

For decades, these rights have existed on paper, but religious leaders and their communities have argued that practical enforcement has been missing. Although religious freedom is a protected right, the country is still lagging behind on fomenting a culture of tolerance and tangibly addressing the favoritism that excludes many groups from having an equitable voice. Historically, Catholics have been the majority, but as other religious minorities and denominations have increased, they have expressed a growing sentiment to be incorporated into the socio-cultural and political spheres.

RES-0889 seeks to remedy this concern by establishing a formal structure within the government to strengthen the religious sector and provide religious entities the opportunity to speak and contribute in public dialogues.

In reviewing the resolution, several benefits can be noted, including the considerable degree of power vested to the departments in the creation and administration of the Mesas. The language does not impose specific limitations on who and how many groups can participate, nor does it create a strict regimen about voting procedures or who can serve as a Mesa leader. There is ample room for autonomy and organic decision-making, as well as provisions that allow municipal governments to also create Mesas, if they so choose.

Of course, there are potential drawbacks to RES-0889, namely that it only adds more confusion by creating a convoluted bureaucratic process and another federal office in a country with a record of internal corruption. There are questions as to whether the Mesas will be effective in bringing in the opinions and concerns of the religious community, especially of minorities, or whether it will become an exclusionary gathering of political leaders and their selective affiliates. Critics also argue that resolutions of this nature are not the way to solve public issues of religious freedom, which they argue are rooted in more entrenched problems, like political corruption and disregard for the rule of law.

At this time, the impact and effect of RES-0889 is speculative, at best. A better evaluation of the resolution will form as it is implemented over time, which will determine if its objective and purpose were achieved as intended. As Colombia enters into a period of relative peace following decades of armed struggle with communist guerrilla groups, it is definitely a positive sign to see the highest levels of government prioritize and take active steps to include and strengthen the religious community.