Guatemala special feature: the cultural significance of religion in Guatemala

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala religion in Guatemala

Guatemala has a long and fascinating history featuring many years of takeover and colonisation, civil war and regional differences. And of course, along with this kind of history comes a relatively complex religious picture. In this special feature, I’ll be looking at the religious composition of the country, and how this affects its culture.

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature: find out about religion in Guatemala

Religion plays a significant part in everyday life for the people of Guatemala. Christianity remains extremely important within Guatemalan culture and is the primary religion. However, its composition has changed over recent decades, and will continue to do so.

Statistics from 2017 show that 50% of Guatemalan people identify as Catholic, 37% as Protestant, 11% as having no religious affiliation and 2% as ‘other’. During the colonial time period, Roman Catholicism was the official religion in Guatemala. Today, it is given a specific status in the constitution of the country.

Over recent decades, there has been an increase in Pentecostal (known as ‘Evangelicos’ throughout Latin America), Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox religions. From the 37% of Guatemalans who identify as Protestant, most ae independent Evangelicals or Pentecostals.

Religious freedom in Guatemala

While Catholicism is recognised as a ‘distinct legal personality’ in the Guatemalan Constitution, freedom of religion is also established. The Constitution also says that registration for any religious group is not needed, and that the rights of indigenous Mayan people are protected.

Guatemalan culture is a rich mix thanks to the complicated history of the country. And its religion follows the changes Guatemala has experienced over the centuries.

Catholicism in Guatemala

Catholicism landed in Guatemala with the Spanish colonists in 1519. From then until 1821, Catholicism remained the official religion. It became so again under the Concordat of 1854, which ran until 1871.

In 2020, Catholicism is still the biggest religion in the country, and very influential. It’s common to see Mayan practices incorporated into Catholic worship. This is when Mayan people remain sympathetic and inclusive of Catholic belief within their own indigenous religion, something that is known as ‘inculturation’.

Within the Guatemalan Catholics, there is also a significant number of Charismatic Catholics. They are part of a global movement called the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. This has a stronger emphasis on people having a more direct and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, in a similar way to Pentecostalism and some sects of Protestantism.

Protestantism in Guatemala

The current estimate of the Protestant population of Guatemala is just under 40%. These are primarily Evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals. Protestant missionaries began to arrive in Guatemala in 1843, but the first one was expelled in 1845 by the then Conservative President.

In 1882 there was a change of Government under a Liberal president and protestant missionaries were allowed to come back to Guatemala. These were Northern Presbyterian missionaries, and opened the very first Protestant church in Guatemala City. This still exists today.

Protestants remained in Guatemala in small numbers until the 1970s. Various Protestant groups were formed and grew quickly during the time of the Guatemalan Civil War. Today, large parts of the Guatemala’s Mayan people are Protestants, particularly those that live in the highlands.

Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Guatemala

At the end of the 19th century, Orthodox Christianity made it to Guatemala with the wave of immigrants from Greece, Lebanon and Russia. In the 1980s, the first Orthodox monastery was established and in 1995 the Catholic Apostolic Orthodox Church in Guatemala was formed.

In 2010, a Catholic movement originally led by ap priest called Andres de Hesus Giron, was formally received into the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Mexico. Most of the converts to both of these religions are mostly made up of indigenous Mayan people.

Mayan beliefs in Guatemalan religion and culture

Mayan religion is today fused with Christianity, after existing in one form or another for more than two millennia. As mentioned earlier, this fusion is known as inculturation, and can be seen in Catholic churches like Santiago de Atitlan.

The original Mayan religion is formed around nature gods, and traditionally included things like blood sacrifice. Its sacred text is called the Popul Vuh, which is a book of Mayan mythology that is still used today. Guatemalan religion in 2020 is the result of many influences melding together to form something uniquely Guatemalan.

Part Christian, part indigenous spirituality, it is as rich and diverse as Guatemala itself. Learning about the country’s heritage and journey to today’s religious standing will help to gain a better understanding of this unique and eclectic culture.