Religion plays a central part in living in Panama. While Panama is generally open-minded with other religions, there is still a dominant religion in the region. If you plan on living in the isthmus, living with the locals means understanding how they value religion.
In Panama, Christianity is the primary religion, with Roman Catholic making up two-thirds of its population. The remaining religions include Evangelical Protestants at 25% of the population and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 1.4%. One of the biggest nonsectarian beliefs in Panama are those of the Baha’i Faith at 2%.
Are you curious about how to live with these religions in Panama? Let’s take a dive into the religions of the isthmus and try to understand how it works. We’re sure this is a topic you’ll appreciate.
Religious History of Panama
For the longest time, Panama itself was not a country, but rather a part of Colombia. During the early days of Spanish colonization, most of Panama was of tribal aboriginal in nature. Religion relegated at most to the local tribes until the conquistadors started colonizing the country.
The earliest sign of organized religion in Panama comes from the founding of the first European settlement on the Americas. Santa María la Antigua del Darién erected its first mission on August 1513. During the time, Fray Juan de Quevedo became the first Catholic bishop to oversee the continental Americas.
There is not a lot of historical information about religion during this time. Most of the Spanish rule focused on handling other parts of the Americas. As they waded through other countries like Old Colombia, much of Panama stayed as-is. Panama Vieja burned to the ground in 1671, while the Catedral Basílica Santa Maria la Antigua de Panamá started construction in 1688.
Much of the religious tide, however, started moving away from Roman Catholicism in the 18th century. The root of such comes from the expulsion of the Jesuit order in 1767. Such expulsion and apathy towards religious attitudes prevented the Catholic Church from holding deep.
By the 19th century, liberal European Enlightenment swept across the nation. While the country was unaffected by religious anticlerical sentiment, there was a decline of religious feelings. This trend continued over the 20th century, creating strong secularization across Panama.
By the time of the separation from Colombia in 1903, the Catholic Church of Panama ramped up. It emphasized on its spiritual role towards the citizens of the country and avoided secular involvement. This movement stayed until the 1960s, helping most locals stay Roman Catholic.
From around this time, the movement of slaves in Panama as laborers made it a melting pot of religions. Islam came to the islands during its early foundation due to African slaves from the 16th century. Judaism came into the islands by 1876.
Religions of Panama
So, what is the main religion in Panama?
Christianity, as a religion, is the biggest religious demographics of Panama. It comprises more than 90% of all religious beliefs in the country. Among these, 63.2% are Roman Catholics.
Catholicism is not the official religion of Panama. Even then, due to its longstanding position as Panama’s majority religion, it has several advantages.
First, most of the Catholic holidays in Panama receive consistent celebration every year. Catholic events like Semana Santa (Holy Week), Easter, Christmas, and even Corpus Christi receives their own holidays.
Catholicism also enjoys wide recognition, with the biggest number of churches in the country. As a majority religion, Catholicism is the religion of instruction used in schools. The constitution of Panama even mandates for the religion to be in use for public schools. Even then, the freedom of religion of the child and the parents supersede this mandate.
In Panama, freedom of religion is paramount to everyone living there. The government itself respects the practice of religion and does not discriminate. If parents want to exclude their children from religious instruction at school, they are free to do so.
Protestantism In Panama
The other majority religion in Panama is Evangelical Protestantism, comprising 25% of the population. The history of Protestantism in the isthmus has a limited scope, coming from Wesleyan Methodists.
The Wesleyans were not even the first Protestants who came, the honor of which attributes to the failed Presbyterian settlement in April 1700.
The person responsible for Protestant missionary work in the country was Mother Abel. She was a Mulatto lady that landed from 1815 – 1825 with a party of whites and Jamaicans.
Mother Abel was in charge of evangelizing among the Creole and founded a Methodist society at Old bank. This developed into the United Methodist Churches of England. She led the Methodist movement in Panama for 60 years, until her passing in 1913.
The first formal, organized Protestant church in Panama City, however, was Episcopalian. The event happened when the Christ Church-By-the-Sea in Colon established. Occasional services happened for the church when Episcopal clergy passed by on the way to California. The first-ever Protestant congregation formed in 1851 in Taboga.
Among the more successful denominations of Protestant Christians in Panama were the Adventists. The Seventh Day Adventists established themselves in Panama by 1901. They founded their headquarters in Bocas Del Toro, building 3 churches and 4 missions.
Today, there are more than a million evangelical protestants, which counts as 25% of the population in 2015. Seventh-day Adventists make up 0.6% of the entire population. Episcopalians claim to have anywhere between 7,000 to 10,000 members.
Other Faiths in Panama
There are other smaller religious denominations in Panama. The Baha’i Faith and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the biggest among these minor denominations. Other faiths include Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims.
The Baha’i Faith consists of 2% of the national population, which translates to around 60,000 people. The Baha’i have around 10% of the indigenous Guaymi population under their faith. This gives the Baha’i a sizeable population in Panama.
The Guaymi population is also active in recruiting people to the Baha’i Faith. They integrated into the faith in the 60s, building a cultural center in the Chiriqui district. This cultural center became the center of the literacy efforts of the government for the Guaymi.
The big Baha’i population merited one of their eight Houses of Worship built in Panama City. It is the mother temple of Latin America, perched on the cliff of Cerro Sonsonate.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Panama consist of 1.4% of the population. The religion details that there are 300 congregations of their faith in Panama. The services are not only provided in Spanish but in 7 other languages as well, including sign language. There is also a heavy concentration of Kingdom Halls mostly in Panama City.
One of the more surprising religions, however, was Buddhism. Buddhism in Panama is a prevalent minor religion, with around 0.4% of the population. The Buddhists in Panama are, at most, descendants of the Chinese workers transferred during the building of the canal and railways.
The Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities each have an estimate of 10,000 members. Most of these members come from immigrants and retirees in Panama. There is an additional 7.6% of Panamanians who declared themselves to be religious nones or atheists.
Dealing With Religion in Panama
Living with a bunch of different faiths in Panama is not a problem at all. Unlike other countries, Panama values its people’s religious freedom among all else. As long as you respect the freedom to worship by other Panamanians, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Panama has a good track record with its lack of recorded religious persecutions. Most of the people in Panama see religion, at most, as a cultural tradition rather than zealotry. You can expect people to mind their religions instead of heavy, active recruitment.
Religious arguments are not a good action to take, as people in Panama go out of their way to live in peace. The law itself protects people from all forms of abuse but provides juridical capacity for each to handle their own problems. As long as their juridical procedures follow the limits prescribed by common law, the government allows religions to handle their problems.
If you are an immigrant to Panama and want to worship, the smartest way is to contact the local chapter. Many local chapters of different religions are more than happy to help immigrants worship. Many even provide English-speaking services that help tourists and immigrants set their religious roots.
For foreign religious workers, you can get a temporary 3-month missionary worker visa. The country also provides a 12-month extension to the visa. Many priests, nuns, ministers, and rabbis can receive a 5-year visa.
Religion in Panama weaved into the fabric of common people. If you want to live in Panama, learning to coexist with people of other religions is a must. While there is no religious persecution in Panama, respect is an expectation for everyone. People anticipate everyone to provide equal respect to everyone’s religious beliefs.
Religion in Panama should not be a problem for anyone, whether you’re religious or not. Religious freedom is an important part of normal Panamanian life. Expect no judgment from people in the isthmus for whatever religion you have.
Are you religious? Are you looking to worship in Panama? We’re sure our information can help you in some way, so keep our tips in mind, and you’ll be good to go.
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