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Uruguay: an amazingly secular state

By Camilla Landbø

Camilla took her first journalistic steps as a freelancer for Swiss daily newspapers Burgdorfer Tagblatt and Berner Zeitung, among others. She then travelled to the bustling metropolises, dense jungles and barren Andes of South America. From there, she was a freelance correspondent for various media in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Until 2019, she lived and worked in Buenos Aires and La Paz, Bolivia. Now she is back in Europe reporting from Spain and Switzerland, mainly on social topics.

'There are no official religious holidays in Uruguay. They were abolished over a hundred years ago. Secularism pure and simple.'

In the southern hemisphere, summer is coming to an end in South America. In the last warm weeks, people still go to the beaches here and there. Especially beautiful are those of the small country of Uruguay, which lies directly south of Brazil and east of Argentina. And since it's only a stone's throw away, many Argentines will also travel to Uruguay this year for Holy Week and Easter.

However, after the travellers have crossed one of the international bridges or the border river Río de La Plata by ferry with a packed car, it comes to an abrupt end. Although the travellers are still in the same time zone, Holy Week and Easter are over in Uruguay. The end. Over. The 'Week of Tourism' begins - Semana de Turismo. How does that work?

If you take a look at the official Uruguayan calendar, you will be surprised to see that Easter is missing. There are no Christian holidays at all. If you look for Christmas, you find 'Family Day'. Uruguayans eat Epiphany cake on 'Children's Day'. Mary's conception is celebrated in the country with its many seaside resorts on "Beach Day" and Easter is - precisely - the 'Week of Tourism'.

If you look even closer, you will notice that there are no religious holidays on the official agenda: neither Christian, Buddhist, nor Islamic. Nada, nothing. The reason: no religion is granted such a privilege in Uruguay. Religion is a private matter. And has been for a very long time.

Free thinking for over 150 years

'Secularism is strongly anchored culturally in Uruguay,' says German theologian and social scientist Veit Straßner, who has studied the recent history of the church in Uruguay. In this country, no religion has been supported since the separation of church and state at the beginning of the 20th century. Also, every confession is free, Uruguay has no representation at the Holy See and no religious instruction may be given in state schools, to name a few. 'A special case, then, on the Catholic continent.'

In this way, Uruguay differs not only from other South American countries, but also from Europe. The debates about secularism in Uruguay began as early as the mid-19th century - led by anti-clerical liberals and free thinkers, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.

These debates, which were precocious for South America, had, among other things, to do with the fact that Uruguay was the country on this continent least influenced by Catholicism, according to Straßner. For the Spanish, this spot was an insignificant stretch of land at the beginning of colonisation. 'That is why there was a late conquest, development and missionisation.' This is also reflected in the fact that the diocese of Uruguay was only established in 1878 - more than half a century after the end of the colonial period.

Provoking with a barbecue

The main reason for these pronounced secularist aspirations was the strong presence of liberal-anti-clerical ideas, including within the government. The secularisation process, which lasted several decades, was thus largely state-controlled.

The things that were introduced and implemented are impressive: in 1859, Uruguay expelled the Jesuit order from the country; in 1861, it nationalised the church-run cemeteries; in 1885, it introduced civil marriage; and in 1907, divorce - a pioneering act. For Uruguay stipulated that divorce was also possible at the wife's request. The country also banned crucifixes and images of saints in public places.

In all these years, there were of course repeated confrontations between the supporters and opponents of secularisation, including public ones. For example, anti-Catholic liberal groups regularly organised provocative free barbecues in front of churches on Good Friday - the Catholic fast and abstinence day par excellence. They invited the population to attend.

Finally, the 1917 constitution strictly separated church and state. The Catholic bishops were very concerned about this, Straßner notes. 'For the Church, this secular-liberal life became the third, great danger to the salvation of the soul, next to corporeality and the devil.' And two years after the separation, the names of church holidays were secularised by law in 1919, says the theologian.

Since then, the Catholic Church has tried time and again to protect its flock from secular dangers by disciplining them. In their pronouncements to the faithful, the bishops have warned, for example, against secular schools, cinemas, or the 'unbridled bathing culture reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah'. The Church lived in a kind of parallel world.

Confucius monument thanks to crucifix

In the 1980s, a heated debate flared up again about the permissibility of religious symbols in public spaces. The reason for this was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Uruguay in 1987, when he was to hold a church service in the open air in the capital Montevideo. A thirty-metre-high cross was erected especially for the occasion. Of course, it was a big exception. The government had assured in advance that the cross would be taken down again after the Pope's visit.

Contrary to the original plans, the government suddenly announced that the cross would remain standing as a souvenir. Many were outraged. 'In the end, it was up to parliament to decide what to do next. In the end, the cross remained standing by a narrow majority.' Other religious communities also demanded their rights: since then, a monument to Confucius and a monument to the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda cult have stood in Montevideo.

This small South American country may have opened up slightly to religious manifestations in recent years. 'It may be a little less secular in the future,' Straßner assesses.

Nevertheless, the extent to which Uruguayans adhere to the strict separation of church and state, and in some cases continue to expand it, was demonstrated once again in 2010: when José 'Pepe' Mujica took office as the new president of Uruguay in a festive ceremony, he did not 'swear' but rather 'pledged' to exercise his office loyally. For the first time in Uruguay's history, a head of state took over the country's highest post with these words. Mujica is an avowed atheist.

From guerrilla fighter to president

During his presidency (2010-2015), Pepe Mujica became famous beyond the borders, partly because of his background. He had previously been a guerrilla fighter and had served fourteen years in prison during the years of the Uruguayan dictatorship - and survived. But he also became popular because of his social and just way of governing the country and setting a good example. As head of state, for example, he donated almost his entire salary to social causes and stayed in his modest house outside Montevideo instead of moving into the presidential palace.

Secularism: protection against religious fanaticism

When the author of this article visited Mujica at his estate for an interview shortly before the end of his term, he explicitly pointed out: 'You are in the most secular state in South America. All I can say is, a secular country, that's a blessing.' This, he said, had saved Uruguay from religious fanaticism, which, like all fanaticism, is sinister.

On the Bible, he said, 'Life is a valley of tears, then to go to paradise - what is that!!!? That crap!' It was one of the few parts of the interview where Mujica raised his voice and got excited. 'The only paradise is this one, life now!' He slapped his leg with his hand to punctuate it acoustically. 'That's where the religion of the Greeks was more sympathetic, with quarrelling and jealous gods, they were kind of human.'

Uruguay is also called 'the Switzerland of South America' because of its democratic development. And it has to do with the achievements during the very period in which secularisation also took place. At that time, the education system was expanded, universities were created, and rights were granted to the working population: among other things, an eight-hour working day, minimum wage, old-age pension, paid holidays, and days off during pregnancy.

Today, Uruguay has around 3.4 million inhabitants. It is the country in South America with the most atheists, who make up 10 per cent of the population. A 2014 study also showed that around 38 per cent of Uruguayans do not belong to any religion.

Eggs are also hidden and searched for at Easter

Back to Easter: even though the festival does not officially exist, it is still celebrated. 'Of course there are masses and Stations of the Cross, it's not forbidden,' says Straßner. And eggs are also hidden and searched for. But of course, not only do the numerous tourists from Argentina enjoy the late summer on the beach during the 'Week of Tourism', but also the Uruguayans themselves.


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