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Defending Religious Freedom in Indigenous Communities

Defending Religious Freedom in Indigenous Communities

MAY 1, 2021

 Among the hundreds of millions of people who live in Latin America, there are millions who have their own indigenous languages and customs. Many of these indigenous people are our spiritual brothers and sisters, who value their cultural heritage. In order to help people spiritually, they translate and distribute publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses in over 130 indigenous languages of Latin America. * Still, some of them have encountered opposition for choosing to serve Jehovah and for refusing to participate in unscriptural customs that are common in their communities. How have your donations been used to help them?

Helped to Return Home

 In Mexico, our brothers and sisters in a Huichol community in the mountains of Jalisco State respectfully refused to participate in religious practices that violated their conscience. * But this angered some in the community. On December 4, 2017, a violent mob attacked a group of Witnesses and several others who were with them. The mob forcibly expelled them from the community, destroyed their property, and threatened to kill any who tried to return.

 Witnesses in nearby towns cared for the immediate needs of our brothers and sisters. But what could be done so that they could return home? “We did not have enough money to hire a lawyer,” explains a brother named Agustín, “and we did not know where to go for legal advice.”

 Since our brothers’ freedom of worship was under attack, the Central America branch took immediate action. First, they asked local officials to investigate these crimes. Next, they received approval from the Coordinators’ Committee of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses to work with the Legal Department at world headquarters and to file a lawsuit on behalf of our Huichol brothers and sisters. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation—Mexico’s highest court.

 An international team of lawyers prepared a clear argument in which they explained that just as others must respect the culture of indigenous communities, the communities themselves must respect and protect the freedoms of all of their members. Human rights have no borders.

 On July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled unanimously in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They ordered that all those who had been expelled should be allowed to return to their community. Agustín, quoted earlier, expresses the appreciation that he and others feel: “We are so grateful and happy for what the brothers have done for us. If they had not helped us, we could not have done anything.”

“So Much for So Few”

 Meanwhile, our brothers in San Juan de Ilumán, a village in Ecuador that is home to many indigenous people of the Otavalo Valley, faced similar opposition. In 2014, after obtaining all the necessary permits, they began to build a Kingdom Hall. However, a priest led a mob of over 100 and forcibly stopped construction. The community then ordered Jehovah’s Witnesses to stop meeting together for worship.

 The legal departments at the Ecuador branch and at world headquarters collaborated to defend the congregation from this violation of their freedom of worship. Our brothers took the matter to court. This prompted the community to withdraw its opposition and to allow the congregation to resume their meetings and finish building their Kingdom Hall. But to protect our brothers’ rights in the future, our representatives asked the higher courts to rule on a fundamental issue: Must indigenous communities respect international human rights?

 On July 16, 2020, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, the highest court in the land, heard the case. Brothers who are lawyers in Ecuador represented the congregation. In addition, four of our brothers who are experienced international lawyers addressed the court. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they spoke from various countries via videoconference. This is the first time any court has allowed a legal team that represents Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide to present arguments in this way. * The team cited international legal authorities to confirm that indigenous persons do not give up their individual human rights simply because they are part of an indigenous community.

Via videoconference, an international team of lawyers defended the rights of our brothers

 Our brothers in the Otavalo Valley eagerly await the Constitutional Court’s decision. In the meantime, they are touched by the help they have received. César, who serves as an elder in the Ilumán Quichua Congregation, says: “Only Jehovah, through his organization, would do so much for so few.”

 The lawyers involved in the litigation are all Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they are happy to share their legal expertise at no charge. Still, filing these cases, preparing for them, and arguing them in court cost time and money. Our lawyers and other brothers spent over 380 hours preparing legal arguments and another 240 hours translating documents for the Mexico hearing. Almost 40 lawyers from around the world spent hundreds of hours on the Ecuador case. How have we been able to care for expenses associated with defending our brothers? By means of the contributions you have made using the various methods explained at Thank you for your generosity.

^ Jehovah’s Witnesses also translate into many Latin American languages of Indo-European influence and several sign languages that are unique to the region.

^ The Huichol people are also known as Wixáritari, and their language is often referred to as Wixárika.

^ Although our worldwide organization was not party to the case, the judges allowed our brothers to appear before the court as amicus curiae, a “friend of the court.”