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Algeria

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.

In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.

On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.

In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.

On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.

In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.

On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.

Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.

During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.

The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.

The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.

According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.

In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.

Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.

Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.

The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.

Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.

The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.

Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.

Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.

Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures and jailed activists.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.

Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.

Angola

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In March, police arrested several religious leaders and worshippers for violating the government’s emergency order banning large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to press reports, police detained more than two dozen individuals for organizing or participating in religious gatherings: 22 Seventh-day Adventist pastors in Bie, Huambo, Benguela, and Lunda Norte; four members of the Evangelical Congregational Church in Kwanza Sul; and one pastor from the Holy Spirit Evangelical Mission in Namibe. Several religious leaders criticized the actions of the pastors and said churches should comply with government restrictions. The head of the Angola Christian Church Council, Deolinda Teca, said that people should continue praying, but do so in strict observance of the safety measures issued by the government, and disapproved of the posture of some religious leaders, who in the first days of the state of emergency continued to hold widely attended in-person services despite the COVID-19 restrictions.

In October, the government issued a decree stating that only religious groups formally recognized by the government could resume services on a limited basis under COVID-19 measures. It also defined Saturday and Sunday as the only two days when religious services could be held. Leaders in the Islamic community protested and said the restriction on days did not account for them. The decree, updated every 30 days, was changed in November to allow for Friday prayers without specifically citing the source of the objections. In practice, the ban on unregistered religious groups holding services was not enforced, according to religious group members.

After the passage of legislation in 2019 that reduced the number of member signatures required for religious groups to register to 60,000 but introduced a requirement of 1,000 signatures from each of the country’s 18 provinces and gave the unregistered groups six months to comply, the unregistered religious groups stated that the period was too short and the notary and residential declaration requirements, which they estimated to cost approximately $7.50 per signature, were too costly and burdensome for their congregations. In addition to the signature requirement, the large number of undocumented residents and an unreliable residential registry system also presented obstacles to registration, according the religious group leaders. While the law states the government may shut down religious groups that do not meet the requirements, government officials informed religious leaders they would delay enforcement until the presidency published additional implementing regulations. As of year’s end, religious groups that had begun the registration process but not yet been approved by the government, including Muslims and Baha’is, were allowed to hold religious services as long as they were in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.

The INAR director and Ministry of Culture officials continued to state concern regarding the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which were alleged to have exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues to worship or belong to these organizations.

The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally. Requests for official recognition submitted in 2019 by two Muslim organizations, CISA (Islamic Community of Angola) and COIA (also translated as the Islamic Community of Angola), remained pending. In the past, government officials stated that some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution. According to COIA, there were 69 unregistered mosques in the country.

The Baha’i Faith and the Church of World Messianity remained the only two non-Christian organizations legally registered prior to the 2004 law.

During the year, the Catholic radio station Ecclesia expanded its broadcast area to 16 provinces following a 2018 presidential announcement that the government would allow the radio station to extend its signal beyond Luanda Province. Methodist, evangelical, and Tocoist (also known as Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World) radio stations also operated in the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials communicated with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society throughout the year, including representatives of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. During the annual bilateral human rights dialogue in December, U.S. officials urged the government to address abuses by religious groups through existing legal avenues and encouraged the government to further ease registration requirements for religious groups. Embassy officials also spoke with representatives from several provinces, including Luanda, Benguela, Huila, and Cunene, as well as representatives of multiple religious groups and organizations, such as the Congregation of Christian Churches in Angola, Tocoists, the Order of Angolan Evangelical Pastors, Jesuit Refugee Services, COIA, and the Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch. The main topics were those related to the recognition of religious groups, the IURD split, and the effect of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on religious groups.

Benin

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to the Ministry of Interior’s Director of Internal Affairs and Religion, the primary catalyst for government involvement in religious affairs was “disruption of public order.” The director said early in the year police intervened in Atacora and Abomey when members of a traditional religious group threatened one another in an internal dispute over leadership succession. In both cases, according to the director, the Republican Police maintained peace by monitoring the disputes and did not use force. Overall, the director stated that government involvement in religious activities was infrequent.

On February 19, Littoral Department (encompassing the de facto administrative capital city of Cotonou) Prefect Jean-Claude Codjia issued an order banning the Voodoo Egungun religious group from publicly holding the Egungun masquerade performance within the department. According to the press, the prefect issued the order following a February 16 internal Egungun conflict which injured six members of the group and caused a public disturbance. The order did not prevent the group from practicing Egungun rituals privately.

On March 21, government officials met with religious leaders from the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, and Muslim groups to discuss the closure of places of worship to limit the spread of COVID-19. Following the meeting, all places of worship were ordered closed. On May 27, the government ordered the reopening of places of worship beginning June 2 in consultation with national religious leaders and the government’s interministerial COVID-19 committee. Many religious groups stated they did not perceive the measures as discriminatory. In a May 12 statement, however, Archbishop of Cotonou Roger Houngbedji said he was “embarrassed” to see “churches remaining closed as mere gathering places, just like bars and places of leisure, while open markets, supermarkets, and other places continued to bring people together.”

The government regularly relied on religious leaders to share accurate information about COVID-19, according to press reports. On March 16, the mayor of Parakou in the north of the country met with religious leaders to ask them to help curb misinformation about the pandemic. On July 15, the mayor of Abomey-Calavi asked religious leaders to distribute masks and hand sanitizer to congregants. On August 5, the mayor of Abomey in the central region discussed management of religious events amid COVID-19 with leaders of indigenous religious groups. Municipal officials also said they explained the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of religious leaders to enforce measures such as social distancing, handwashing, and wearing of masks.

Government officials continued to attend inductions, funerals, and other religious ceremonies organized by religious groups. State-owned television often broadcast these events. Police continued to provide security for religious events upon request.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met with leaders of religious groups and encouraged religious tolerance. From March 6 to 11, embassy representatives visited Ketou, Bohicon, Dassa and Parakou in the central and northern part of the country, where they met with leaders of Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious groups to discuss the status of religious freedom and relations among religious groups in those cities. In Parakou, embassy representatives met with seven imams and Islamic scholars to discuss religious freedom and tolerance.

Embassy officials met with religious leaders individually and via roundtable discussions. During the year, the embassy held individual meetings with Voodoo leaders, Celestial Christian leaders, and imams from the Organization of Young Muslims for Interreligious Peace. In February, the Ambassador met with Imam Razack Samari in Djougou, in the northwest of the country, to discuss the imam’s efforts to combat religious extremism. Samari owns radio station La Voix Islamique, which broadcasts messages of religious tolerance and gender equality to its primarily Muslim listeners. The station’s director, a previous participant in a U.S. exchange program on the topic of interfaith dialogue, interviewed the Ambassador during her visit to Djougou about the embassy’s efforts to support interfaith dialogue and peace.

Botswana

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Optional religious education remained part of the curriculum in public schools; this curriculum continued to emphasize Christianity, but it also discussed other religions practiced in the country. Government regulation of private schools did not distinguish among Christian, Muslim, or secular schools. In February, the government adopted a nondiscrimination policy in schools that allows students to wear a hijab or religiously-based head covering.

The government continued to pursue court cases involving unregistered churches (sometimes called “fire churches”) coming into the country to “take advantage of” local citizens by demanding tithes and donations for routine services or special prayers. The government required pastors of some of those churches to apply for visas, even those from countries whose nationals were normally allowed visa-free entry. The government ordered the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) in November 2019 to close its church branches in the country following cancellation of ECG’s registration in 2017 over questions of financial impropriety. The Church had appealed the decision, but during the year dropped its court challenge to its deregistration. The ECG, founded by a Malawian pastor who faced charges of fraud and money laundering in South Africa late in the year, had 14 branches in the country.

Although it was common for government meetings to begin with a Christian prayer, members of non-Christian groups occasionally led prayers as well.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with Muslim, Buddhist, Church of Jesus Christ, Baha’i, and other religious representatives to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement. Topics included government tolerance of minority religious groups.

Burkina Faso

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government stated that terrorists attacked religious institutions with the aim of dividing the population. On October 21, at a government forum on “national cohesion,” Speaker of the National Assembly Allassane Bala Sakande stated, “In this war against terrorism, we are not engaged against an ethnic group or against a religion, but we are engaged against those who hate Burkina Faso and the Burkinabe.”

Following the kidnapping and killing of the grand Imam of Djibo by armed groups in Soum Province on August 11, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said he “strongly condemned” the “barbaric assassination” which “aimed to undermine our model of religious tolerance and the foundations of our nation.”

Following a February 16 attack by approximately 20 armed assailants on the village of Pansi in Yagha Province during which a pastor and 23 others were killed, opposition political party head Jean Hubert Bazie said it was “imperative that the state secure places of worship, as well as other places where citizens gather” and called on the government to create a national body to monitor religious freedom and prevent interreligious confrontation.

The government allocated 75 million CFA francs ($142,000) each to the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and animist communities, the same level as the previous year. Sources stated that this funding was meant to demonstrate equitable government support to all religious groups in the country. The government also provided funding to registered Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim (commonly referred to as “Franco-Arabic”) schools through subsidies for teacher salaries, which were typically less than those of public-school teachers.

On August 6, the government issued a decree integrating the traditional animist communities into ONAFAR, providing animist communities with representation in the government agency responsible for promoting interreligious dialogue as well as preventing and managing conflicts of a religious nature.

The government continued to routinely approve applications from religious groups for registration, according to religious group leaders, although the government indicated it had rejected some on “moral” grounds.

In September, the government intervened in a legal dispute between Christian and Muslim groups involving a plot of land in Ouagadougou where a mosque had been destroyed. In an October 7 statement, the government said that it “disapproves of the destruction of a place of worship” and that it had taken ownership of the disputed property and would fund reconstruction of the mosque.

In June, the Archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, joined Minister of Interior and Territorial Administration Simeon Sawadogo during Eid al-Fitr prayers led by the Grand Imam of Ouagadougou.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials raised the continued increase in religiously motivated attacks, particularly in the Sahel and Est Regions, with the government, including the Ministries of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, the Ministries of Defense and Security, and the Office of the President. Embassy staff regularly discussed events and policies affecting religious freedom with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, including the equitable registration process for religious groups, the equitable treatment of religious groups by the government, and the status of the relationship between the ministry and different religious groups.

The Ambassador and embassy officials met separately with Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant religious leaders to encourage their efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and advocate for religious tolerance and freedom.

Embassy representatives used social media platforms to reinforce messaging that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador regularly raised the need to counter the threats to the country’s tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.

The embassy funded literacy programming in registered Quranic schools in northern parts of the country, the curriculum of which focused on peaceful dialogue, nonviolent conflict resolution, and religious tolerance.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador or Charge d’Affaires met with imams, priests, and pastors to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. During the year, embassy officers conducted regular outreach with imams, Catholic priests, and Protestant leaders to understand the current threat to religious freedom and tolerance in the wake of the unprecedented violence against both Christian and Muslim worshippers perpetrated by terrorists. Throughout the year, embassy officials organized or supported several activities to respond to the social divisions between religious groups. For example, the embassy supported training for religious leaders on building tolerance and stability in their communities, conflict management, and fostering inter- and intrareligious cohesion.

Burundi

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The president of the country’s chapter of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Lameck Barishinga, arrested in October 2019, remained in prison without formal charges. On September 24, according to media reports, the government met with a delegation from the East-Central Africa Division (ECD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, headquartered in Kenya, to discuss the imprisonment and other issues stemming from the ECD’s appointment of Barishinga as head of the Church after dismissing his predecessor in 2018. The government recognized the Church’s new four-person executive committee, appointed by the ECD in September to lead the Church until internal elections in July 2021, and during a joint press conference with the ECD delegation, urged members to accept the new leadership and avoid internal conflicts. On October 17, police intervened to prevent violence when former Church President Joseph Ndikubwayo led a group attempting to enter a church in Bujumbura during services held by David Bavugubusa, the chair of the new executive leadership committee; police arrested Ndikubwayo and an undetermined number of church members.

On November 10, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists released a statement thanking God for increasing religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the country, and expressing hope there would be even more progress in religious liberty activities in the country.

On February 27, police detained for two days Pastor Arthemon Nzambimana of Eglise Vivante (Living Church), who replaced former Pastor Edmond Kivuye after he fled Burundi in 2015. The police did not give a reason for the detention, but according to media and civil society representatives, the government likely disapproved of his leadership and intended to install Terence Mpanuwaka, a pastor considered close to the government, as the head of the Church. Police arrested Nzambimana again in May along with 10 other pastors from the Church and released them five days later after further questioning. Media reported police continued to interrogate Nzambimana periodically throughout the year, but that he was at liberty at year’s end.

On October 18, the government closed two Free Methodist churches in Cibitoke Province following clashes between members of the churches in which two persons were injured. Media reported tensions arose over internal conflicts between members of the churches’ leadership and congregations, which led to police intervening and arresting four church members for public disturbance.

Government officials routinely employed religious rhetoric before, during, and to a slightly lesser extent after the May national election in the context of political speeches, and invoked divine guidance for political and other important decisions. Opposition parties generally did not employ similar religious rhetoric during the campaign.

Pressure to join the Church of the Rock, run by former First Lady and ordained minister Denise Bucumi-Nkurunziza, significantly decreased according to observers, after President Evariste Ndayishimiye, a Catholic, assumed office in June.

President Ndayishimiye met with Protestant church leaders in October to discuss their roles in strengthening unity and social cohesion. According to media reports, the President urged them to manage peacefully conflicts within their churches because those conflicts sometimes led to public disorder. President Ndayishimiye also met with the Conference of Catholic Bishops in July and asked for their support of government development projects.

In July, the Ministry of Interior announced the suspension of requests to register new religious groups until further notice, citing the need for the ministry to design new registration and approval procedures. The ministry continued its 2019 suspension of construction of new churches and mosques in Bujumbura, which it stated was meant to guarantee order and provide better zoning regulation for the construction of future buildings.

Media reported weekly visits by government officials to various churches throughout the year, including by the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the National Assembly, and President of the Senate. In some instances, officials were given the opportunity to preach about scriptures and moral issues. The Senate President also served as the legal representative of the Free Methodist Church in the country.

The CNDD-FDD, the country’s ruling political party, organized monthly “thanksgiving crusades” on the last Thursday of each month in all provinces around the country, and invited government officials, party members, religious leaders, and other notable local figures to attend. During the events, clergy from various churches gave thanks for the blessings the party and its members had received. Government officials delivered speeches that included references to scriptures and their applicability to events in the country, and recommended ways party members should improve their moral behavior on a personal level and as members of the party.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops deployed 2,716 domestic observers across the country to monitor the presidential and legislative election held in May. After the election, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement denouncing what the conference stated were many irregularities regarding the freedom and transparency of the electoral process, as well as fairness in the treatment of certain candidates and voters. The president of the Independent National Electoral Commission stated it was “surprising” that of the 39 organizations that observed the general elections, only the Catholic Church identified irregularities. The president of the electoral commission invited the Church to review the reports from the other 38 organizations, most of which were identified as progovernment civil society organizations, to assess their veracity. On June 5, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a public statement in which they “rejoiced with the electorate” and congratulated then President-elect Ndayishimiye.

Religious leaders appointed by the government to the Body for the Regulation and Conciliation of Religious Confessions, established by the government in 2018 to coordinate with religious groups, continued to serve as president and vice president of the body, and a government employee served as executive secretary. The body continued its efforts to promote dialogue among and within religious denominations during the year but was constrained by resource limitations, according to the body’s president, Charles Nduwumukama, pastor of Eglise du Plein Evangile (Full Gospel Church).

The government continued to grant benefits, such as tax waivers, to religious groups for the acquisition of materials to manage development projects. According to the Burundi Revenue Authority, the government also granted tax waivers on imports of religious materials such as printed materials, wines for masses, and equipment to produce communion wafers. In September, the government encouraged all religious leaders engaged in commercial activities to pay taxes in compliance with tax law and procedures.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials regularly met with religious leaders of various faiths, such as the Anglican and Catholic Churches, to discuss ways to improve religious freedom in the country. The embassy encouraged community leaders, including political leaders and representatives of major faith-based groups, to support religious acceptance and promote interfaith discussion of the collaborative role religious groups could play in disseminating a message of peace and tolerance to the population.

On November 16, the embassy launched a project with Catholic Relief Services to strengthen the Inter-Religious Council of Burundi’s organizational and technical capacity to peacefully resolve differences among the people of the country.

Embassy officials continued to promote interfaith dialogue and supported efforts to include religious minority groups in U.S. programming, including a five-year, $50 million initiative to improve living conditions for families in Muslim and Christian communities in Muyinga Province. When the project concluded in September, elements of its approach, particularly the model of faith-based engagement in both Christian and Muslim households, continued to be employed by local organizations that benefitted from the original project and now sustain its work.

In November, the embassy, working with the Inter-Religious Council of Burundi, launched a project to strengthen the organization’s ability to help resolve differences peacefully, as well as to connect citizens to their new government. The project was developed to address lingering tensions from the May elections and to support faith leaders in their efforts to improve dialogue, tolerance, and social cohesion. Thirty-six high-level representatives of various religious congregations affiliated with the Inter-Religious Council, including Catholic and Protestant bishops and imams and sheikhs from the Muslim community, attended the launch ceremony. In one of the few times in recent history that the government has accepted and supported U.S.-funded activities in the political realm, government representatives spoke at the ceremony and expressed their appreciation for the role religious leaders had already played in easing tensions during and after the elections, offering their support for the new initiative on political and communal reconciliation.

Central African Republic

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to exercise limited or no control or influence in most of the country, which observers said was due largely to the presence of armed groups, including the ex-Seleka, a grouping of predominantly Muslim armed groups, and the anti-Balaka, a grouping of predominantly Christian armed groups. Police and the gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, including killings, physical abuse, and religious-based violence, according to human rights organizations. For instance, between March and April, clashes between two predominantly Muslim armed groups from different ethnic groups, the Goula and the Rounga, resulted in the deaths of more than 50 combatants and civilians and affected more than 1,200 civilians in the town of N’dele. Conflicts between the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (FPRC) and the Movement of Central African Freedom Fighters for Justice (MLCJ) reportedly led to the segregation of their respective ethnic groups in IDP camps in Birao. A Muslim advocacy organization reported it had documented Muslims being subjected to arbitrary and long pretrial detentions by the government when the government pursued majority-Muslim armed groups.

The United Nations Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) remained the only force capable of maintaining security in much of the country, according to peacekeeping experts, but MINUSCA stated it remained hampered in its ability to protect civilians due to an increase of electoral violence and the closure of the main supply routes in December as well as limited resources and personnel and poor infrastructure.

Because religion, ethnicity, and politics were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely based on religious identity. Most observers, including the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, described the conflict in the country along ethnic lines, which mostly overlap with religious beliefs.

Thirteen of the country’s armed groups remained as formal signatories to the terms of the 2019 APPR, which was originally signed by 14 armed groups, while the government generally followed the terms, according to international observers. Among other commitments, the armed groups agreed to refrain from acts of violence directed at places of worship. The Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) armed group, however, suspended its participation in the APPR implementation mechanisms in June. In December, armed groups formed a new alliance, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), which included two predominantly Christian anti-Balaka groups, predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka groups (MPC – Central African Patriotic Movement, UPC – Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, FPRC), and the mostly Fulani, predominantly Muslim 3R. Experts widely viewed these groups as violating the terms of the APPR and responsible for the significant disruption of election on December 27.

In January, after public consultations, the National Assembly passed a law creating a Truth, Justice, Reparations, and Reconciliation Commission in support of the APPR. The Commission will have 11 members, including four women, with a mandate to promote a national dialogue on the conflicts that have seriously marked the country since independence.

In July, the International Criminal Court (ICC) set a February 2021 hearing date in the case of Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, an anti-Balaka commander and former member of parliament, and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, also a senior leader of the anti-Balaka. At year’s end, both men were in ICC custody and stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including killings targeting Muslim civilians, deportation and torture of Muslims, and destruction of mosques. At year’s end, no Muslim ex-Seleka militia leaders had been similarly accused by the ICC, despite having allegedly committed similar crimes against humanity throughout the country’s conflict.

In February, a criminal court in Bangui sentenced five leaders of predominantly Christian militias to life in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during a 2017 attack in Bangassou in which dozens of Muslims were killed. The decision represented the first time a court handed down a sentence for crimes against humanity, according to the Minister of Justice.

Religious minorities generally had difficulty obtaining the necessary identification to register and vote in the December general election, according to observers. They said that many non-Muslims did not consider Muslims, especially those with ties to neighboring countries, to be citizens, which complicated procurement of identity documents. In accordance with the electoral code updated in September, individuals living as refugees outside the country, the majority of whom were Muslim, were not allowed to vote in the election. Observers said that without refugee voter registration, Muslims would be underrepresented in the electorate.

The Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation continued public service announcements via radio stations nationwide, reaffirming the government’s commitment to treat all citizens equally. Working with international assistance, the ministry supported locally established peace committees to enhance social cohesion.

Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were observed for the first time as national legal holidays. The National Assembly’s adoption of the law establishing the holidays in December 2019 followed the recommendations of the Bangui National Forum, a national reconciliation conference held in 2015 to promote social cohesion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with President Touadera and other government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials urged the inclusion of voting by refugees living outside the country in the December election. The embassy representatives also raised concerns about religious freedom and the safe voluntary return of refugees and IDPs to their home communities. They encouraged government representatives to implement outreach activities directed at religious communities and publicly condemn attacks on religious structures and against religious groups. They also called on the government to provide security for all citizens, regardless of faith.

Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders, including Catholic Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga, President of the Central African Islamic Council Imam Omar Kobine, other Christian leaders, imams, and representatives of the Coordinating Committee for Central African Muslim Organizations and Coordinating Committee for Christian Women, on issues related to religious freedom and reconciliation. Officials explored opportunities to broaden religious leaders’ access and dialogue with elected officials and thanked the leaders for their positive representation of interfaith dialogue and efforts to help communities heal from violence.

The Ambassador visited the local school of the first two embassy-sponsored student participants in the Pan Africa Youth Leadership Program in the marginalized PK5 Muslim community. Also in PK5, the Ambassador attended an interfaith basketball game to show U.S. government support for religious tolerance. Officials also engaged young former participants of U.S. funded programs from PK5 on elections and religious freedom issues. The Ambassador attended a funeral service for Imam Kobine, and the embassy expressed its condolences to the entire Muslim community in the country on social media. Embassy officials met with imams from the PK5 neighborhood to reinforce the message that the international community is a partner of all who support peace in the country and to exchange views on the national election.

Embassy officials monitored religious and ethnic-based hate speech in local media and expressed concern about hate speech to local media and government contacts on a regular basis. Through an embassy-sponsored program, an organization provided training to journalists on how to counter and avoid hate speech.

The embassy provided equal attention to all principal religious holidays on social media. The Ambassador’s regular outreach to the Muslim community to celebrate their religious holidays – among them a large Ramadan donation of foodstuffs to vulnerable communities, including female-headed households, in the Muslim community in Bangui – was amplified on embassy social media pages. During the year the embassy sponsored the travel of a female Muslim community leader to the United States for a program designed to mentor female leaders to serve their communities and promote peace and security. Another young Muslim leader traveled to the United States under embassy sponsorship for a program on nongovernmental organization management.

Chad

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government maintained its ban on the leading Wahhabi group, Ansar al-Sunna. According to civil rights organizations, enforcement was difficult, and adherents continued to meet and worship in their own mosques. Local media reported that many security force officials belonged to the same tribes and came from the same regions as the Wahhabi leaders, resulting in lax implementation of government decisions, favoritism, and bribery. Local Arabic-language media reported that the HCIA president reconciled with Wahhabi groups, unlike his predecessor, who was generally anti-Wahhabist. Due to the government ban on their activities, Wahhabis received financial support from abroad as individuals rather than as a group, according to local Arabic-language media.

The government continued to deploy security forces around both Islamic and Christian places of worship, in particular on Fridays around mosques and Sundays around churches, as well as on other occasions for religious events.

Between March and June, the government closed all gathering places, including places of worship, to fight the spread of COVID-19. The measures applied to all religious groups in the same manner, and national Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic leaders all supported these government restrictions in public statements and encouraged believers to pray at home. Local media reported that Wahhabis did not support or comply with governmental restrictions, especially in the northern and northeastern neighborhoods of N’Djamena. The government lifted restrictions on public communal worship in June and promoted social distancing measures. Mosques and Protestant churches reopened in June, while Catholic churches chose to delay their reopening until July, citing COVID-19 transmission concerns.

According to media, the government’s elimination in December of the denominational oath of office that had required senior government officials to take an oath “under God” or “under Allah” was widely popular.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires met with Ministry of Territorial Administration officials and discussed shared support for maintaining dialogue and peaceful coexistence among the country’s religiously diverse population.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives met and spoke with the Grand Imam of N’Djamena and with Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i leaders to monitor and promote religious freedom and tolerance as well as to discuss efforts to counter extremist messages related to religion.

During the August visit of U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region of Africa, the embassy organized a roundtable discussion with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i leaders to support interfaith dialogue and cooperation as well as to discuss efforts to counter extremist messages related to religion.

Embassy officials continued to discuss religious tolerance with imams during meetings and in training sessions and workshops. The embassy increased social media outreach on religious freedom, including a popular video message recognizing Eid al-Adha featuring the Charge d’Affaires. The embassy highlighted activities related to, and amplified messages promoting, religious freedom and tolerance.

In January, the embassy organized two presentations in French and Arabic on religious tolerance and human rights. The audience included government officials, religious leaders, teachers, university students, lawyers, judges, civil society, and media.

In September, the embassy hosted a Meeting on Education, Respect, Resilience, and Inclusion for 15 religious leaders and high-level officials in the education sector, including the Minister of Education. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom hosted the virtual meeting, which was held in French and Arabic.

Côte d’Ivoire

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In late August, after some protests against President Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term resulted in violent clashes with both police and supporters of the President, Cardinal Kutwa, acting in what he said was his personal capacity, gave a press conference in which he said the President’s candidacy was “not necessary.” The Cardinal bemoaned “increasing radicalization” across the political spectrum and “unacceptable violence” during these demonstrations. He called for peace and reconciliation in the period preceding the October presidential election. Following the Cardinal’s statement, members of the ruling coalition, including Catholic cabinet ministers, held a press conference at the Catholic cathedral in Abidjan and said the Cardinal’s words did not help calm “rising societal tensions” in the country. Some commentators, both supportive and critical of the administration, suggested Kutwa’s statement showed he supported the opposition, although Kutwa repeatedly denied having any political affiliation. Posters on social media self-identifying as Muslim accused the Cardinal of opposing the President, also a Muslim, because of the President’s religion.

In February, a Muslim cultural association petitioned the government for authorization to host a Malian preacher who intended to give a sermon on “Islam, Peace, and Development” at a sports arena in Abidjan. The government asked that the association postpone the event due to unspecified security concerns in the region. The requesting association eventually cancelled the event.

In late January, leaders of both opposition and progovernment political movements called on their supporters to join a planned “march for peace” organized by Catholic youth and women’s groups. Civil society organizations and other commenters said these actions were an attempt to co-opt the event for political purposes. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Abidjan said marchers intended to pray for peace in connection with the October presidential election and that the event was nonpolitical. On January 25, two Facebooks posts by unknown individuals threatened violence against Catholics participating in the march. Authorities opened an investigation to identify the sources of the posts, which were deleted. On January 26, Cardinal Kutwa announced an indoor rally would be held instead of a march due to concerns regarding the “dangers of infiltration” and the safety of Catholic participants.

The DGC communicated regularly with religious leaders and groups to encourage caution in social media messaging to prevent potentially inflammatory communications.

The DGC stated that many unregistered local religious groups operated in the country, which it said was due to lack of knowledge or understanding of registration requirements by the groups’ leaders. The DGC said it had not identified any foreign religious groups operating without authorization.

In September, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the government held a ceremony attended by President Ouattara and the Apostolic Nuncio and released a stamp bearing the likeness of the President and Pope Francis. The director general of the postal authority said the theme of the stamp was “peace.”

On March 18, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government met with a wide spectrum of religious leaders to ask them to encourage their followers to respect government decrees related to the pandemic, in particular, a 15-day ban on meetings of more than 50 persons announced March 16. The same day, the Supreme Council of Imams of Cote d’Ivoire (COSIM, the country’s Sunni Muslim association) voluntarily closed all mosques for 15 days and later extended the closure for three additional months. Some Christian churches cancelled services, and the Episcopal Conference of the Cote d’Ivoire, representing Catholic bishops, issued a statement requiring all members to observe the 50-person limit at religious services. Religious leaders also appeared in government-produced public service announcements urging respect for COVID-19 prevention measures.

Religious leaders said they sought to collaborate with the government and urged the government to disseminate its COVID-19 messaging through them in order to reach as many persons as possible, including religious communities living in remote areas.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the state of religious freedom and tolerance in the country with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with senior Christian and Muslim religious leaders, including during the Ambassador’s trip to the central part of the country in late September, to urge respect for all faiths, including the right not to practice a religion at all. Other topics covered included freedom of religion and belief, and responsible rhetoric, including religiously tolerant discourse, during the electoral period. Embassy officers also met regularly with the director of Al-Bayane, affiliated with COSIM, to discuss the role of religious media outlets in promoting peace, social cohesion, and religious freedom.

In July, the embassy hosted a virtual roundtable discussion attended by religious leaders from several major cities in which, among other topics, the leaders discussed civic engagement in the religious community and the role of religion in maintaining social cohesion in the country. In June, the embassy hosted a virtual discussion with local religious leaders and a Muslim student association on the religious community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which participants highlighted Christians and Muslims working together to disseminate information to their communities on COVID-19 prevention measures. In May, during an embassy-sponsored virtual roundtable, eight Christian and Muslim religious leaders from across the country discussed the nonhealth impact of COVID-19 on religious communities.

In February, the embassy’s monthly radio debate program hosted a discussion on the role of religious leaders in promoting peace and social cohesion. The director of Radio Al-Bayane and a senior Catholic priest led the discussion, which had more than 100 participants, including religious leaders, representatives of political parties, members of civil society organizations, journalists, and students.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Between April 13 and 24, according to NGO and media reports, police killed 55 members of a “separatist religious movement” and injured dozens more following demonstrations in which armed members of Bundu Dia Kongo (Gathering of Kongo – BDK) blocked roads and chanted slogans “inciting ethnic hatred” in towns in the west of the country. A Human Rights Watch report said police used excessive force when dispersing crowds and arresting members of the BDK, whose leader issued a statement April 12 urging followers to “ruthlessly… chase out” those who were not of Kongo ethnicity. In late April, the interior ministry said 22 BDK members died during two raids, one of which led to the arrest of the group’s leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, for “rebellion, threatening state security, and incitement of tribal hatred.” Ne Muanda Nsemi was released after spending four months under observation in a psychiatric hospital. Military prosecutors said they took steps to investigate whether security forces committed unjustifiable killings, but they did not announce any prosecutions, although they previously communicated their intent to do so.

The government and religious communities maintained close relations, according to the media and religious leaders. Catholic leaders reported regular dialogue with members of the Presidency and the government on issues of human rights, women’s empowerment, religious freedom, education, and security. Representatives from the Catholic Lay Community expressed support for what they called the government’s open stance regarding freedom of assembly and freedom of speech under President Felix Tshisekedi, who took office in January 2019. Leaders of the Church of Christ in Congo, an umbrella organization for the country’s Protestant communities, said in press statements that they believed Tshisekedi was committed to fighting corruption and advancing human rights, including religious freedom.

The Ministry of Justice again did not issue any final registration permits for religious groups, and had not done so since 2014. A ministry internal audit, reportedly in progress for several years and focused on fraudulent registration practices, remained incomplete at year’s end. It was cited by some observers as an obstacle to resuming the issuance of registrations. The government, however, continued its practice of permitting groups to operate that were presumed to have been approved. Unregistered domestic religious groups reported they continued to operate unhindered. The ministry previously estimated that more than 2,000 registration applications for both religious and nonreligious NGOs remained pending and that more than 3,500 associations with no legal authorization continued to operate. Foreign-based religious groups reported they operated without restriction after applying for legal status. Under existing law, which was under review, nonprofit organizations could operate as legal entities by default if a government ministry ruled favorably on their application and the government did not object to their application for status. According to 2015 registration statistics, the latest year for which the Ministry of Justice had statistics, there were 14,568 legally registered nonprofit organizations, 11,119 legal religious nonprofit organizations, and 1,073 foreign nonprofit organizations. Religious nonprofits that were legally operating and registered included 404 Catholic, 93 Protestant, 54 Muslim, and 1,322 evangelical nonprofits, the latter including those belonging to the Kimbangu Church.

The government continued to rely on religious organizations to provide public services such as education and health care throughout the country. According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 72 percent of primary school students and 65 percent of secondary school students attended government-funded schools administered by religious organizations. The government paid teacher salaries at some schools run by religious groups, depending on the needs of the schools and whether they were registered as schools eligible to receive government funding.

Muslim community leaders again said the government did not afford them some of the same privileges as larger religious groups. The government continued to deny Muslims the opportunity to provide chaplains for Muslims in the military, police force, and hospitals, despite a complaint filed in 2015 with the then president and his cabinet.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy officers met with officials in the Presidency as well as from the Ministries of the Interior, Justice, Human Rights, and Education, to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations. Embassy officials also regularly urged the government, security force leaders, and community and political leaders to refrain from violence and to respect the rights of civil society, including religious groups, to assemble and express themselves freely.

Throughout the year, embassy and Washington-based officials engaged with members of religious groups and human rights organizations. In meetings and discussions with members and representatives of the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Church of Christ in Congo, the Muslim Association of Congo, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Anglican Church, the Kimbanguist Church, the Apostolic nunciature, and the Jewish Community of Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, U.S. officials discussed religious groups’ ability to operate within the country, their relationship with the government and other religious organizations, and their freedom to worship and express their religion as they saw fit.

Djibouti

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Since 2014, the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has overseen all Islamic matters, and mosques have little operational independence. A ministry representative stated that government control and oversight of mosques was necessary to preclude political activity from mosques and counter foreign “extremist” influence.

The government continued to permit registered non-Islamic groups, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, to operate freely, according to Christian leaders. Religious signage was permitted at the Catholic Church. Muslim citizens were permitted to enter Christian churches, although societal pressure discouraged conversion. There were no limitations on the importation of religious literature for registered non-Islamic groups. No other Christian groups and no non-Christian groups had legal recognition from the government. The government subsidized the cost of utilities at some church properties of registered non-Islamic groups, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony. Religious groups not registered with the government, including the Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, which applied for registration years ago, operated without government sanction. Observers stated these groups and other religious minorities hosted worship gatherings in private housing and usually at night, in part because of reduced police presence at that time.

In September, the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs collaborated with the Ministry of Youth and Sports to invite a well-known Somali Islamic scholar, Sheik Moustapha Ismail, to preach at several mosques and host a large event at the national stadium. The events were intended to encourage and revive religious practice among youth.

The government continued to allow non-Islamic religious groups to host events and proselytize on the groups’ private property; in practice, groups refrained from proselytizing in public spaces such as hotels or street corners due to cultural sensitivities and the threat of government intervention. Government officials noted that any violation of the law forbidding public proselytizing would summon the police. The government continued to permit a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets at a bookstore in Djibouti City.

The government continued to issue visas to foreign Islamic and non-Islamic clergy and missionaries but required they belong to registered religious groups before they could work in the country or operate nongovernmental organizations. The government required foreign religious leaders to regularize their status by purchasing an annual residency card for 24,000 Djiboutian francs ($140).

According to observers, it would be practically impossible for a non-Muslim to achieve a high position in government service.

Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but under the direction of the Ministry of Education, schools in refugee camps continued to permit students of other religious groups to miss class for their respective religious holidays. The ministry continued work on revising the national curriculum, including reforming civic and moral education courses to promote religious inclusivity.

The government continued to implement a civic and moral education course, based on Islam, in public schools across the country. According to a Christian religious leader, private schools run by non-Muslim religious groups were required to teach the Islam-focused course.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs, and religious representatives to discuss continued free practice of religion, including for religious minorities within refugee camps.

Egypt

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. The men were among a group of 17 defendants who were tried and sentenced to death in 2018 for their involvement in these and other attacks.

On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each on charges of membership in a banned group, possession of firearms, setting fire to a religious establishment, and other charges for their roles in the arson attack on the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On September 17, the Court of Cassation ordered that an additional 22 defendants, who in 2018 were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the attack on the church, have their sentences reduced to between two and five years’ imprisonment.

On June 27, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemned the continued detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salid and other activists. Authorities originally arrested Kamel in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community. The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. On December 6, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.

On August 22, authorities arrested Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate and member of the Quranists (Quraniyyun), who believe that the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed). In September, press and NGOs reported that authorities were investigating Abdel-Rahman for joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his arrest. According to the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), security officers questioned Abdel-Rahman and seven of his relatives arrested at the same time about their relationship with Quranist leader Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour and their adoption of Quranist principles before releasing the seven relatives. EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him. On December 31, authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention.

On January 11, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment each for a 2016 attack on Souad Thabet, a Christian who was stripped and dragged through her village of Karm in Minya, in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. According to the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Thabet welcomed the convictions and praised President al-Sisi for his public support for her and her family. Three defendants, sentenced in absentia, surrendered to authorities and faced automatic retrial on the same charges in the Minya Criminal Court. (The status of the fourth defendant remained unknown.) After announcing that it would hand down its verdict on August 24, the Minya Criminal Court ordered the case returned to the Beni Suef Criminal Court, which acquitted the three men on December 17. The same day, the Public Prosecutor ordered the formation of a technical committee to review and challenge the acquittal. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms told the al-Monitor news website the verdict demonstrated the deep-rooted bias within the judicial system against Christians. According to an analyst of customary reconciliation sessions from EIPR, local Christians whose houses had been damaged in the incident agreed to hold a customary reconciliation session with the alleged assailants after facing pressure from the local Muslim community in February.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. Authorities arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”

NGOs and press reported that on May 20, authorities assaulted a priest and arrested 14 Copts who were protesting the destruction of their church in Beheira Governorate. The lawyer for the Coptic community said that the church had been used for 15 years before the Abu al-Matamir city council ordered it removed. According to NGOs, after the church opened, local Muslims built a mosque next to the church with the aim of preventing the church from being legalized. According to NGO reports, security forces razed both the church and the adjacent mosque, since both appeared to encroach on agricultural land owned by the state. Church officials later stated that the government was within its rights to dismantle the church.

Although in late 2018 President al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing,” efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support. In 2019, al-Azhar founded a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.” The Bayan Unit published several social media pieces that were critical of atheism, and on August 25, as part of a training program, al-Azhar organized a workshop on “atheism, its types, and the most important methods of dealing with adherents of its ideas.”

On April 13, authorities in Beheira Governorate detained three Muslim teenagers on suspicion of blasphemy after they posted a video showing one of them smoking while performing prayers. According to local press, the three minors confessed, and said they posted the video to become famous.

On June 27, the State Security Misdemeanor Court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men initially arrested in 2019 to one year in prison each for violating laws against “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. According to an international NGO, the government based its prosecution of the two men on provisions in the penal code that criminalize the defamation of religion and spreading propaganda “insulting ‘the heavenly [Abrahamic] religions.”

On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belonged to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a doctor and professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. The court’s decision followed a lawsuit filed by activist lawyer Samir Sabry, whose office told the press after the decision, “The reasons behind this verdict are based on the dangers of Shiite ideology on Egyptian society and national security, as Shiites in Egypt use religion for political manipulation.” Al-Nafis said the country’s Shia community was not interested in conversions and added, “We are not hurting anyone.” One press report stated that the verdict was issued despite the fact that there are no laws prohibiting the promotion of Shia beliefs and that a 1959 fatwa from al-Azhar recognized the legitimacy of the Shia Jafaari school along with the four main Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

On August 26, a Port Said criminal court sentenced a man in absentia to 15 years in prison for allegedly “distorting” the text of the Quran after he said he had received a divine revelation. The court convicted the man of producing a “new Quran” in violation of laws that regulate the printing of the Quran.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. On August 28, the MOI announced the arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ezzat had been a fugitive since 2013 when he was sentenced in absentia to two death sentences and life imprisonment on multiple terrorism-related charges. Following his arrest, the law required he face retrial on those charges. Upon Ezzat’s arrest, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated sources announced that Ibrahim Mounir, who lives in the United Kingdom, had become the new acting supreme guide.

The Court of Cassation in July upheld a life sentence for Mohammed Badie and five other Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted for involvement in political violence in 2013. Essam al-Erian, whom the press identified as a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who served as vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, died of a heart attack in Tora Prison on August 13.

On February 6, security authorities arrested Ahmed Sebaie, who managed a YouTube channel with 404,000 followers that focused on religion. Sebaie produced several videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and discussed Islam. After 29 days in detention, authorities released Sebaie without charges. On November 27, authorities arrested Sebaie again after he posted a video discussing the Bible and Christian doctrine to social media and charged him with reading false news and misuse of social media.

On May 5, authorities in Alexandria arrested 10 persons for holding Ramadan night prayers in contravention of the Ministry of Awqaf’s closure of mosques due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All were subsequently released without charges.

On February 2, the director of the Alexandria Ministry of Awqaf ordered a deduction of three months’ salary from preacher Mohammed Kamal Mohammed for failing to adhere to the ministry’s official topic for Friday sermons. In August, the Ministry of Awqaf revoked the preaching license of an al-Azhar preacher after accusing him of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for violence.

According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison that he be allowed to attend Coptic Christmas services on January 1. Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

On January 6, EIPR issued a statement criticizing the pace of legalization of churches and subsidiary buildings that had filed applications since 2016 and called for a single, uniform decree granting final legal status to all churches and subsidiary buildings.

According to official statistics, the government approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year. Since September 2017, it approved 1,800 of the 5,415 pending applications for licensure of churches and related buildings.

According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands during the year to build 10 churches in eight cities (Sadat, New 6th of October, New Beni Suef, Badr, Nasser, and New Sohag). At the May 21 inauguration of Project Good Hope 3 in Alexandria, a complex that will provide housing for 50,000 individuals and feature a centrally located new cathedral and mosque in close proximity, President al-Sisi stated, “The idea is that when we built the schools, the church, and the mosque, our young children will see that we are one country, one people.”

In September, the government announced that it would open and renovate more than 300 mosques in several governorates across the country in September and October. According to press reports, the step came in response to accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups that authorities had been demolishing mosques in a crackdown on illegal buildings.

A cabinet report stated that the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities allocated 41 million pounds ($2.61 million) for the Journey of the Holy Family project, a 2,100 mile trail that will extend from Sinai to Assiut, and will include stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells in 11 governorates. Those governorates have provided 448 million pounds ($28.55 million) for related development projects, according to the report.

According to a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) in the country, and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from the security and intelligence services.

The press reported that a government committee charged with the seizure of Muslim Brotherhood assets filed a lawsuit in September to confiscate the funds of 89 Muslim Brotherhood members, including the heirs of former President Mohammed Morsi. The court scheduled a hearing for January 2021.

In January, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the government authority that oversees the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), announced that it had excluded a number of publishers of Islamic titles from participating in the fair, held in January and February, and barred the sale of several authors for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Sayyed Qutb, Hassan al Banna, and Youssef Qaradawi. A CIBF representative said publishers were required to submit lists of titles that they intended to display for approval, and security officials reportedly rejected some of the applications submitted by Islamic publishing houses. In a January 25 statement, the chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization said that it took the actions to “prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from carrying out its activities.” On February 25, the Anti-Defamation League published a letter it had sent to President al-Sisi that condemned the presence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other anti-Semitic literature at the book fair. The General Egyptian Book Authority did not bar the publishers, one of which was affiliated with the government, from participating in the fair or order the books removed, citing the government’s commitment to freedom of speech. The Simon Wiesenthal Center published a letter which stated that the CIBF continued to allow the publisher Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi to display anti-Semitic publications.

On September 26, the Supreme Administrative Court denied an appeal against a 2014 decision by the Alexandria Judicial Court upholding a prohibition of the annual celebration of the birth of Rabbi Yaqoub bin Masoud, also known as Abu Hasira, at his tomb in the Beheira Governorate; ordered the removal of the shrine from the government’s list of Islamic, Jewish, and Coptic antiquities; and rejected a request to move the rabbi’s remains to Israel. The court justified its decision to prohibit the annual celebration, citing “moral offenses and disturbances to public order,” and ruled that the shrine lacked archaeological significance. The government first listed the tomb and the Jewish cemeteries surrounding it as antiquities in 2001. The court ordered the government to inform UNESCO of its decision.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing such sessions as substitutes for criminal proceedings which would address attacks on Christians and their churches. Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions. Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized the practice as an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship that regularly pressures Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On March 20 and 21, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Awqaf announced the closure of all churches and mosques to curb the spread of COVID-19. Churches and mosques remained closed through August. Religious institutions made concerted efforts to persuade the population to address the spread of COVID-19. On March 29, the Ministry of Awqaf, explaining its decision to close mosques, said that a fundamental goal of Islamic law was to preserve life. On March 15, al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the highest Islamic advisory body, declared it religiously permissible to suspend communal prayers in mosques to curb the spread of the pandemic. On March 17, Grand Mufti Shawky Allam said Egyptians should follow government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene, and on April 1, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa encouraging the distribution of alms to workers affected by COVID-19.

On July 4, the Ministry of Awqaf ordered barriers placed around the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, located inside al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, an action the ministry said was intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 after some worshippers kissed the shrine. In previous years, the government closed the room containing the tomb during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura.

On January 26, the High Administrative Court upheld a final verdict banning faculty and teaching staff of Cairo University from wearing the niqab (face veil) during classes, putting an end to a case first filed by 80 faculty members in 2015. The ban only applied to lecture halls during classes and did not apply to students. The ban came into force on February 8, with instructions that professors who did not comply were to be prohibited from teaching. On January 30, Ain Shams University issued a similar ban on the niqab for university staff.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers but continued to refuse requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.

According to local media, on May 30, the Supreme Administrative Court dissolved the Islamist Building and Development Party based on an allegation of the Political Parties Affairs Committee, which oversees political parties, that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group in violation of the law. While authorities did not ban other Islamist parties, including the Strong Egypt Party, they added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists on November 19.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. The governors of the Damietta and Ismailia governorates are Christian, as is a deputy governor of Alexandria Governorate. The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor. The electoral laws governing the 2020 House of Representatives elections reserved 24 seats for Christian candidates in the closed-list portion of the electoral system. Three Christians won elections as independent candidates to the House of Representatives in November. In addition, 17 Christian senators and two Christian representatives were elected, and President al-Sisi appointed seven Christian senators. President al-Sisi has approximately five senior Christian advisors.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, third grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum. On September 8, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki said in a press conference that President al-Sisi directed third grade classes to begin universal instruction from the book Values and Respect for Others, a text to teach ethics drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.

On February 18, the cabinet announced that the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in cooperation with the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents and the Ministries of Education and Technical Education, Awqaf, Culture, and Youth and Sports and the National Council of Women, signed eight protocols of cooperation with a number of Muslim and Christian NGOs to launch a program to promote equality in Minya Governorate, a region with a significant Christian population and a history of sectarian tensions. The cabinet announced a budget of 12 million pounds ($765,000) for the program that would target 44 villages.

Grand Imam El-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.” In a January 18 meeting with a delegation of French Catholic bishops, El-Tayyeb said the document’s principles offered a “safe way out of the problems of the East and West.”

In January, the al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced that in addition to highlighting unity between Muslims and Christians and the concept of citizenship without distinction to religious belief, new textbooks in the 11,000 schools under its purview would include material based upon the principles of the Document on Human Fraternity. In 2019, the committee announced the introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam. Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In a June 28 meeting with his cabinet, President al-Sisi urged “giving the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of all religions, including freedom of belief, tolerance and acceptance of differences.” On October 21, after images of the Prophet Mohammed that Muslims widely considered blasphemous were published and displayed in France, the President gave an address to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday during which he said freedom of expression should have limits if it offended more than 1.5 billion people. Al-Sisi said, “We also have rights. We have the right for our feelings not to be hurt and for our values not to be hurt,” adding that he firmly rejected any form of violence in the name of defending religion, religious symbols, or icons.

While the constitution declares al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion pounds ($1.02 billion).

Dar al-Iftaa and al-Azhar issued several fatwas and statements permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays, to assist non-Muslims in need, and to “stop using [religious] beliefs as means to harm or diminish others.” On April 18, Grand Imam El-Tayyeb congratulated Christians on Easter Sunday, stressing the bond of “brotherhood and love” between the country’s Muslims and Christians and highlighting that Christians were “good people (who) set the most wonderful example of solidarity and cohesion in critical moments, especially during this pandemic.”

On May 14, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa stating that it is permissible for Muslims to give zakat (religiously mandated charitable donations) to non-Muslims in need of treatment for COVID-19 or other diseases or to meet any other material needs.

On June 16, Dar al-Iftaa issued a series of statements on social media following the death due to suicide of Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian lesbian activist, writer, and reported atheist. Dar al-Iftaa wrote that “all heavenly religions” prohibit homosexuality and that atheism was an “intellectual problem” and a “psychological disease” requiring treatment. However, the statement continued, Muslims claiming “with full certainty” that a person “will never enter paradise” were “absolutely wrong, because such judgement of who goes to heaven and who does not is up to Allah.”

Following a government investment of 60 million pounds ($3.82 million), on January 10, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) reopened the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue in Alexandria. Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani noted in his remarks at the opening ceremony that “the opening of the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria after its restoration is a message to the world that the Egyptian government cares about the Egyptian heritage of all religions.” On February 14, the government sent a representative to a rededication ceremony of the synagogue honoring 174 members of the diaspora Jewish community from approximately a dozen countries.

On July 20, the government demolished several Islamic cemeteries it said dated from the early 20th century as part of a roadworks project, but denied reports that it had demolished parts of Cairo’s oldest Islamic cemetery, the Mamluk Desert Cemetery. Activists asserted that the tombs were part of the country’s Islamic heritage and that the cost of moving the graves was prohibitive for the families of the deceased.

On January 27 and 28, under the auspices of President al-Sisi, al-Azhar held the International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Thought attended by Muslim scholars from 47 countries. Al-Azhar announced the opening of a new center for the renewal of Islamic thought during the conference. In remarks made on behalf of President al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly urged the acceleration of reforming religious discourse, stressed the importance of countering “bogus” messaging and “pretentious” religious scholars who “hijack the minds of youth,” and called for practical solutions to the problems that divide Muslims. Al-Azhar Grand Imam El-Tayyeb criticized extremist religious thought and what he labeled as distorted and mocking images of Islam in the West. In an accompanying panel discussion, El-Tayyeb and Cairo University president Mohammed al-Khost presented contrasting views of the nature of possible reforms. Khost called for revisiting and revising sharia and the hadith for a modern world, while El-Tayyeb said that Muslims should build on, not abandon, Islamic tradition and attributed extremism in the Islamic world to politics, not to religious heritage.

A columnist in the government-owned newspaper Al-Youm7 wrote that the conference showed that the leaders of al-Azhar were “not concerned with the issue of renewing thought and enlightenment, but rather … in preserving the heritage that enables them to keep their great privileges in power and [to] collect the spoils and remain in the spotlight, using religion as a vehicle.” Former Minister of Culture and public intellectual Gaber Asfour told international press that “The current leadership of al-Azhar does not believe in renewal and is comfortable with the way things are.”

In July, press reported that al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars released a letter it had sent to the parliamentary speaker in February that rejected, on constitutional grounds, a proposed law drafted by the government that would have changed the status of the Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti, making them independent of al-Azhar. Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar, under the direct control of the government. The draft legislation, introduced in parliament in August, would have granted the President the right to appoint the Mufti. The State Council ruled the draft law was unconstitutional and returned it to parliament where the Religious Affairs Committee withdrew it from further consideration. After the decision to withdraw the bill, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb said that the decision to withdraw the bill demonstrated that the country continued to respect its constitution and appreciate its national institutions, including al-Azhar.

On June 22, the Ministry of Awqaf announced the formation of a committee “to counter extremist ideology.” The ministry said the committee was tasked with developing plans to confront extremist thought among ministry preachers and employees.

In 2019, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country, and that in the future, only mosques that complied with approved designs would be granted construction permits. Implementation of the new directive was pending at year’s end.

In 2019, the state-run University of Alexandria and the state-run University of Damanhour established centers of Coptic studies in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes include courses on the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art. The center at the University of Alexandria first began accepting applications in 2019. On March 4, the state-run Zagazig University and the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo signed an agreement for institutional cooperation in the fields of art, education, music, and the sciences. The agreement allows for an exchange of library services and publications and jointly held academic conferences.

On July 13, the Cairo Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 lower court ruling granting a Christian woman equal distribution of inheritance with her male siblings and declaring that the case was subject to Christian customary laws of inheritance rather than Islamic law.

On October 15, representatives from the Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic churches submitted a draft unified personal status law to the cabinet, covering such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In December, senior Coptic Orthodox Church representatives and the press announced that the cabinet had concluded its review of the draft law, which, according to press reports, incorporates and regulates personal status matters that the churches hold in common, while retaining articles specific to the doctrinal teachings of the three denominations.

On February 20, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam met with the World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, in the council’s Ecumenical Center in Geneva to discuss promotion of interreligious dialogue and combating extremism.

In January, Mohammed Fayek, president of the National Council for Human Rights, called on parliament to approve two draft laws on equal opportunity and preventing discrimination and to establish the constitutionally mandated independent commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination.

On July 21, Prime Minister Madbouly visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, built in the sixth century. On the occasion of the visit, the government announced that it would allocate 40 million pounds ($2.55 million) to restore and develop the monastery and its neighboring city.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador, the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other embassy officials, regularly raised religious freedom concerns. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed attacks on Christians, church legalization and construction, interfaith dialogue, and countering extremist thought with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, governors, the Grand Imam, the Grand Mufti, and the Coptic Orthodox Pope as well as with civil society and minority religious groups. In their meetings with government officials, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly.

Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant and Anglican churches. In these meetings, embassy staff members raised cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues such as issuance of permits for and new construction of churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the protection and restoration of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites. In February, the Ambassador delivered remarks on religious pluralism during the February rededication of Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in meetings with government officials. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts describing the context of religious freedom that reached 25,306 persons.

Equatorial Guinea

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On April 5, the government disbanded two religious groups for “noncompliance” with restrictions under a national emergency declared in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The government said the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God-Stop Suffering, run by Brazilian missionaries, and the locally based Ministry of Liberation, Health, and Prophecy demonstrated “civil disobedience and a lack of social responsibility and solidarity.” The decree disbanding the two groups prohibited the churches from holding events of any type, whether for worship or other reasons; annulled the residence permits for foreign pastors and other church leaders and ordered their deportation as soon as possible; and annulled the permits issued to the church leadership to operate in the country.

During the year, the government maintained the price of registration of religious groups at 350,000 CFA francs ($660), and religious groups could apply to reregister every two years instead of annually.

While the government continued routinely to grant permission for religious groups to hold activities outside of places of worship with the exception of private homes, it usually denied permits to hold activities outside of the prescribed hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., according to religious leaders. Authorities permitted all religious groups, including a small number of Baha’i and Jewish groups, to hold services as long as they finished before 9 p.m. and did not disturb the peace. Evangelical Christian groups stated they continued to hold activities outside the prescribed period with no repercussions.

Evangelical Christians continued to report that residency permits were prohibitively expensive at 400,000 CFA francs ($760) for a two-year period, leading some missionaries to risk the consequences of not obtaining or renewing such permits. Local police reportedly enforced the requirement with threats of deportation and requested a small bribe as an alternative. There were no deportations reported. While the residency permit fee for foreign missionaries was the same as for all other foreigners, if the missionary coordinated with the MJRAPI, a residency permit could be obtained for free, provided applicants could prove their missionary status and pass the requisite security checks. Catholic missionaries did not require residency permits to remain in country.

Catholic masses remained a normal part of all major ceremonial functions and were held, for example, on Independence Day (October 12) and the President’s Birthday holiday (June 5). Catholic leaders were the only religious leaders to regularly meet publicly with the highest-level government officials. Catholic and Reformed Church leaders were often seated in preferred locations at official functions. After part of the Cathedral of Santa Isabel of Malabo was damaged in a fire on January 16, the government organized the collection of public and private donations for its renovation.

Some non-Catholics who worked for the government continued to report that their supervisors strongly encouraged participation in religious activities related to their government positions, including attending Catholic masses. Government officials stated that it was expected that they attend major events such as the President’s Birthday Mass at nearby Catholic churches.

Unlike in previous years, the government did not allow the Muslim community to celebrate Eid al-Adha in Malabo Stadium due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The National Day of Prayer, celebrated by religious groups the first Sunday in April, was held online due to the pandemic. Parliament passed a law in 2017 making the National Day of Prayer an annual event.

Eritrea

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In December, the government released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served prison sentences of between five and 26 years, in some cases for refusing compulsory military service. The government did not comment publicly or privately on the releases.

In April, the government reportedly arrested 15 Christians engaged in a worship service at an individual’s home, and in June, another 30 persons were arrested at a Christian wedding. Local contacts reported some, but not all, were released within a few weeks of arrest. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention at year’s end.

The International NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including some who had been imprisoned without charge for 23 years, while estimates of the number of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith. There were unconfirmed reports that at least 101 of Muslim detainees arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018 were released.

International media reported that authorities released from prison 22 Christians in July and at least 69 Christians in September. The released prisoners were not allowed to leave the country. According to CSW, those released in September had been in prison between two and 16 years without charge or trial prior to their release.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last appeared in public in July, 2017, has remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting government interference in church affairs.

Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and the reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

The government continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service. The government continued to detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons. Authorities’ treatment of religious prisoners appeared to have been inconsistent. In some prisons, religious prisoners reportedly were not allowed to have visitors, but in others, visitors were allowed. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter. Other former religious prisoners reported acceptable conditions, adequate food, and no physical abuse.

Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from international NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders. Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching their religious beliefs to others, although they reported that in many cases the government unofficially allowed them to worship in private homes as long as it was done discreetly.

The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, stated that it is willing to register new religious groups. A representative of the Office of Religious Affairs said that the office had received applications since 2002 but that all had been “defective.” Unrecognized religious groups expressed fear that applying would open them to further repression.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.

Arrests and releases often went unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited. Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.

Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences. According to a report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of unrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. Commercial air service was suspended from March through year’s end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible for most citizens to acquire exit visas.

The government continued to ban all other practices of Islam other than Sunni Islam.

Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities. Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. Local authorities sometimes denied government ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups. Some religious prisoners reported they were allowed to worship together in prison as long as they did so quietly.

Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups. The leaders of the four groups continued to say that their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice. Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged. Religious structures formerly used by the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities in Asmara have been preserved. The government protected the historic synagogue, which was maintained by the last Jew known to be remaining in the country. The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, and as there is no longer a Greek Orthodox community, members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church sometimes held religious services on the site. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as the Church of Christ, remained shuttered. The government allowed the Baha’i center in Asmara to remain open, and the members of the center had unrestricted access to the building. A Baha’i temple outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. Other unregistered groups, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Faith Mission Church, operated to some degree and contributed to the government’s COVID-19 fund. The Anglican Church building held services, but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media, as well as a fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government actions against them, according to observers. Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship in a designated place of worship, according to group members.

Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community, and some international NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government denied this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the acting head of the Sunni Islamic community and the acting head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower level officials for both communities. Observers said that since the 2017 death of the former mufti, Sheik Alamin Osman Alamin, the executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim al-Muktar, who was seen by observers as friendly to the government, in effect was acting as head of the Islamic community.

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remained without a patriarch since the 2015 death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros. Lay administrators appointed by the PFDJ managed some church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

COVID-19-related travel restrictions, including the closure of the airport in March, prevented Eritreans from taking part in travel abroad for religious reasons and hosting clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened the importation of foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations. However, the Catholic Church reported that in February, officials barred Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel and his delegation from entering the country after they arrived in Asmara at the invitation of Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam. According to the BBC, the officials stated they were following orders from those “higher up” not to permit the delegation to enter the country. The delegation was forced to spend the night at the airport and return to Ethiopia the next day. Delegation members said they had one-month visas and did not know the reason authorities turned them away.

The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas. Students attending Roman Catholic seminaries, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials. Some Catholic leaders stated, however, that national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.

While the overwhelming majority of high level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, four ministers in the 17-member cabinet, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.

The government, through National Service, the Warsay Yikealo Secondary School at Sawa that all 12th graders attended, and official party doctrine promoted a sense of national citizenship above religious sectarianism and stated that it does not officially prefer any religion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials to raise religious freedom concerns, including seeking ways to accommodate unregistered groups. They also advocated for the release of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the remaining 24 still in prison, and for an alternative service option for conscientious objectors refusing to bear arms for religious reasons, and they expressed concern over the continued detention of Patriarch Abune Antonios. Officials in Washington shared similar concerns with officials at the Eritrean embassy. A return visit by a U.S. delegation to continue dialogue on these issues, following its 2019 visit, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with a wide range of partners, including visiting international delegations, Asmara-based and regionally-based diplomats accredited to the government, UN officials, and other international organization representatives. They used social media to highlight the importance of religious tolerance and employed public diplomacy programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Embassy officers met with clergy, leaders, and other members of some religious groups, including unregistered groups. During the year, however, some embassy official requests conveyed through the government to meet with religious leaders went unanswered.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, section 402(b), for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Eswatini

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

A 2017 directive declaring Christianity the only religion in the public school curriculum and banning the teaching of other religions remained in effect. In April, a group of University of Eswatini researchers completed a study on the effects of the 2017 directive and published a journal article recommending that the government review the curriculum to suit the needs of all learners and ensure that constitutional protections against religious discrimination are honored in practice. In September, Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly Phila Buthelezi, in his role as chair of the Public Accounts Committee, publicly asked whether it was time for the government to reconsider the 2017 directive and stated his intention to introduce a motion for reconsideration in the next session of the Assembly. As of year’s end, the government had not reacted to the study nor to Buthelezi’s call for reconsideration of the 2017 directive. According to religious leaders and civil society organizations, school administrations continued to permit only Christian religious youth clubs to operate in public schools. Christian clubs sometimes conducted daily prayer services in public schools and were permitted to raise funds on campus. Christian clubs’ activities were normally conducted during lunch breaks, weekends, and school holidays.

During the year, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Themba Masuku hosted an interfaith dialogue in which he called for religious leaders to collaborate among themselves and with the DPM’s office to help raise awareness of, and fight against, poverty, sexual exploitation, rape, truancy, domestic violence, and other crimes and social ills. Religious leaders reported that the DPM’s efforts were both welcome and helpful in encouraging coordination and cooperation on commonly held goals. A Muslim leader highlighted the DPM’s efforts to engage with various faith groups and said that religious tolerance appeared to have improved somewhat during the year as a result of more frequent and more inclusive dialogue.

Religious leaders said the government continued to protect the right of Muslim workers to close businesses in order to attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques despite government-mandated business operating hours. Businesses owned by members of the Baha’i community were allowed to close shops in observance of Baha’i religious holidays. Public schools, however, did not excuse students from attendance on non-Christian religious holidays, Friday Islamic prayers, or Saturday services, such as for Seventh-day Adventists.

Non-Christian groups reported the government continued to provide some preferential benefits to Christians, such as free time on state television and radio. Government-owned television and radio stations broadcast daily morning and evening Christian programming. The government continued to provide each of the three Christian umbrella religious bodies and their affiliates with free airtime to broadcast daily religious services on the state-run radio station. Local newspapers provided free space in their announcement sections to Christian groups but not to non-Christian groups.

The monarchy, and by extension the government, aligned itself with Christian faith-based groups and supported Christian activities such as commemorating Christian holidays. Official government programs often opened with a Christian prayer, and several government ministers held Christian prayer vigils, which civil servants were expected to attend.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials engaged with government officials, the head of the Human Rights Commission Secretariat, and the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation task force on religious freedom and tolerance issues, including the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions in public schools.

Embassy officials also engaged with civil society, the academic community, and religious leaders of different faiths on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions in public schools and the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.

Ethiopia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

International media and human rights NGOs stated that on November 28 and 29, Eritrean forces, fighting alongside Ethiopian government forces to retake the town of Axum from a Tigrayan militia committed indiscriminate killings of hundreds of civilians, including those attending services at the Orthodox Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (Maryam Ts’iyon), on the anniversary of the day EOTC followers believe the Ark of the Covenant arrived at the church. The soldiers allegedly entered the church and killed worshippers and others as they fled. Eyewitnesses reported as many as 800 civilians were killed in Axum. The EHRC conducted an investigative mission to Axum and found no evidence that the attack on the church occurred. According to CNN, in a similar attack on November 30, Eritrean forces opened fire on Maryam Dengelat Church in Dengalat Village while hundreds of worshippers were celebrating Mass, killing dozens. The EOTC deployed a task force to provide humanitarian assistance in Tigray, and one of its senior representatives denied these claims by international media. Local human rights groups could not confirm the allegations of these attacks without on-the-ground verification.

In August, there were reports that government security forces killed two imams and injured a third in Assasa and Shashemene towns in Oromia Region in the wake of protests on August 17 and 18 demanding the release of Oromo opposition politicians. In one of the attacks, the imam’s wife and three-month-old baby were also killed. The EIASC released a statement condemning the killings and expressed its disappointment with what it stated was the failure of government officials and the media to report on and condemn the killings.

In August, government security forces entered Qemer Mosque in Shashemene, Oromia Region, and injured a teacher and his student. In the same month, regional government security forces reportedly forcibly entered Kofele Mosque in Kofele, Oromia Region, and opened fire on the mosque while the Mmaghrib (sunset) prayer was underway. It was reported that no one was injured. The incidents took place during a period of unrest following the killing of Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa, during which some reported that authorities took “disproportionate” measures to control violence.

In June, the House of Peoples’ Representatives (lower chamber of parliament), during its regular proceedings approved into law two draft proclamations that conferred legal personality on the EIASC and the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE) without the need for separate registration. Conferring legal status on the two faith groups marked a direct recognition of the groups as legal entities that may form organizations affiliated with them and exempted them from requirements of regular renewal that apply to civil society organizations.

Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy continued to engage religious leaders in his stated efforts to promote reconciliation among ethnic groups in the country. In May, he met with leaders of the EOTC, EIASC, Ethiopian Catholic Church, and ECFE and urged them to build stronger interfaith ties and to promote peace.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State met with the IRCE in February to discuss the important role that religious leaders play in social cohesion and to understand how the IRCE is engaging communities to decrease tensions before the national elections. The Ambassador hosted an iftar with Muslim community leaders during Ramadan and made remarks in which he highlighted the importance of religious freedom and tolerance as well as the joy of peaceful and supportive coexistence. The embassy reached out to key religious leaders in July during the violence surrounding the killing of Hachalu Hundessa to call for calm. The embassy also reached out to religious leaders in Beninshangul Gumuz in September to ascertain if churches were attacked and whether the attacks on certain communities were ethnically or religiously motivated.

The embassy supported peacebuilding and reconciliation dialogues at Jimma, Haramaya, Ambo, Bahir Dar, and Gondar Universities as part of its strategy to promote dialogue to prevent and reconcile conflicts. The project assembled students from diverse ethnic, religious, and political and ideological groups to engage in structured and intensive dialogue on diversity, including religious diversity, and to learn to build social cohesion through mutual trust and understanding. The embassy also funded a program to build religious cohesion with more than 25 influential community and religious leaders in Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga. The project’s goal was to identify and mitigate violent conflict, create strategies for preventing electoral violence and developing community peacebuilding coalitions, and promote religious tolerance.

The embassy helped the IRCE translate and print its Amharic-language peace promotion training manuals into English and Afan-Oromo to expand the use of the manual and IRCE’s reach in conflict resolution initiatives.

Gabon

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The MOI reported it generally processed registration requests from religious groups within one month. Any difficulty with registration usually involved gathering the appropriate documents, according to ministry officials. Ministry officials described the religious groups it did not register as often being “one-man operations” practicing a mixture of Christianity and traditional animist beliefs, and “lacking authenticity.” Unregistered groups charged with fraud or other illegal activity were those most likely to be sanctioned. MOI officials indicated their continued effort to update the regulations governing associations and religious groups, which were treated identically.

Between March 12 and October 30, the government closed churches and other places of worship to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Initially and through much of the year, religious leaders supported the government’s measures and encouraged their followers to comply. In September, after seven months of closures and despite the reopening of markets, hotels, and some restaurants, religious leaders, most of them Christian, sought government permission to hold worship services. On September 27, the government arrested Pastor Jean Baptiste Moulacka for prematurely reopening his church in Libreville and released him shortly thereafter when it was determined the church was opened only for cleaning. The Ministers of Health and Interior held a joint press conference to reiterate that no place of worship could reopen without government approval and violations would not be tolerated. To alleviate these tensions, a tripartite mediation committee was created to promote dialogue between the government (Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Budget), COPIL (COVID-19 task force), and religious leaders.

On October 16, the Minister of Interior announced places of worship could reopen on Friday, October 30. Attendance was limited to 30 persons, one service a day, and no communion. Religious leaders said they were concerned that the size limitations were excessive, as some churches and mosques were built for congregations of 1,000 or more persons. Catholic leaders said they also saw the date of reopening as biased in favor of the Muslim community given the Friday Islamic Sabbath, and noted they wanted to celebrate a holiday Mass on Sunday, October 25.

The Catholic Church announced a unilateral reopening on October 25. While most Catholics stayed home and opted to wait for the government’s reopening date of October 30, small clashes occurred between congregants attempting to attend Mass and police attempting to keep churches closed. Police entered some churches to force those already inside back out and arrested two priests. Police surrounded Catholic Archbishop of Libreville Basil Mve Engone and prevented him from speaking to congregants. A well-known trade unionist, Marcel Libama, was also arrested while trying to attend Mass. At one location, police launched two flash-bang grenades for crowd control purposes, but no one was injured.

Religious services among all religious groups restarted on October 30, and the government ceded responsibility to religious leaders for enforcing COVID-19 restrictions in their places of worship.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no large religious events were held. However, the government allowed religious leaders to use national television and radio to share their religious messages.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy staff met with senior MOI officials, NGOs, and local religious leaders during the year to encourage continued respect for religious freedom and discuss the government’s response to the pandemic as it related to religious freedom.

Gambia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In September, the National Assembly rejected the draft of a proposed new constitution, for which consultation and drafting began in 2018. During debate over the draft, the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) and the SIC disagreed over the inclusion of the word “secular” in the draft constitution to describe the nature of the state. The 1997 constitution currently in effect does not include the phrase. The GCC said, however, that the language was needed, since former President Yahya Jammeh had declared the country an “Islamic Republic” in 2015 – a declaration that was rescinded by President Adama Barrow soon after he took office in 2017. President Barrow refrained from any public comment on the debate concerning the inclusion of the word “secular’ in the draft constitution. Sources stated that members of the National Assembly supportive of the President rejected the draft constitution for reasons unrelated to the “secular” issue, but rather because of limitations on executive power and retroactive presidential term limits.

The GCC stated that the draft constitution lacked three key guarantees and safeguards: the country’s secular identity as currently guaranteed in law by an act of parliament, protection against discrimination and persecution of minority groups, and the protection of the state against another unilateral declaration of an Islamic Republic. Christian commentators also said that the introduction of a sharia high court in the draft constitution to run parallel to the High Court would be discriminatory to both Christians and women. They also expressed concern that the draft expanded the authority of sharia courts and gave them jurisdiction over Christians in interfaith marriages and families, although the drafters disputed this interpretation.

The Muslim community, through the SIC, said the country should remain a nonsecular state, reflecting the country’s Islamic majority and the religious devotion of Gambians of all faiths, and said the nonsecular status since the inception of the country had provided “all the peaceful coexistence and liberty to embrace any conviction and right to join any religion without being subjected to any restraint or persecution.” According to media reports, the September rejection of the draft by the legislature for reasons not related to the “secular republic” issue left the next steps in the adoption of a new constitution uncertain.

Starting in March, authorities placed restrictions on gatherings for religious worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a local source, on April 17, government security forces arrested an imam and more than 30 worshippers in a mosque in Kerr Alhagie Keru village, North Bank Region. Those arrested were later charged and released on bail. Similar arrests took place in the West Coast Region villages of Gidda and Bwiam.

President Barrow read televised statements during major Islamic and Christian religious holidays in which he stressed his administration’s commitment to promoting religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives held meetings and events with religious leaders of different faith groups, including Muslim (both Sunni and Ahmadi) and Christian, to emphasize the importance of continued religious tolerance. The COVID-19 global pandemic severely restricted the embassy’s ability to hold traditional events in connection with the major religious holidays of both predominant faiths.

The embassy posted messages on social media to celebrate the major religious holidays and to encourage religious acceptance and tolerance.

Ghana

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

While most Christian and Muslim leaders advised their communities to follow a March 15 government directive restricting public gatherings to combat COVID-19, a minority, primarily composed of small independent churches, complained that the ban on large gatherings infringed upon religious liberties, and some contravened the decrees by gathering for worship. President Akufo-Addo lifted the ban on July 31, although restrictions on capacity and length of worship remained in place. President Akufo-Addo declared March 25 a National Day of Prayer and Fasting for protection for the country and the world from COVID-19.

Despite vigorous debate among religious groups and lawmakers about the utility of legislation to manage the activities of “self-styled” pastors, no consensus had developed and no legislation was drafted. In 2019, the Christian Council of Ghana, an umbrella group of mainly Protestant denominations, disagreed with calls by some legislators for a law to control the activities of “self-styled” pastors, saying the situation was “complex” and calling instead for self-regulation, such as established ecumenical bodies’ sharing best practices with churches.

There were reports of uneven enforcement and implementation in schools across the country of the government directive requiring schools to respect students’ religious practices. Muslim leaders continued to report that some publicly funded Christian mission schools required female Muslim students to remove their hijabs and Muslim students to participate in Christian worship services, despite a Ministry of Education policy prohibiting these practices. The Islamic Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service received a complaint that a private school in Accra asked a student to remove her hijab. Similarly, there were continued reports that some publicly funded Islamic mission schools required female Christian students to wear the hijab.

Both support for and opposition to the President’s proposal to build an interdenominational national Christian cathedral continued. Although President Akufo-Addo stated that public funds would not be used for the project, critics questioned whether the $100 million cathedral should be a priority for a country with urgent development needs and argued that the project inappropriately linked the state with a particular faith. In March, President Akufo-Addo attended a ceremony marking the beginning of construction of the national cathedral; construction was delayed until October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government officials leading meetings, receptions, and state funerals generally offered Christian and Islamic prayers and, occasionally, traditional invocations. President Akufo-Addo, a Christian, and Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia, a Muslim, continued to emphasize the importance of peaceful religious coexistence in public remarks. While receiving an international religious leader in February, Akufo-Addo commented, “We are a country where even though the overwhelming majority are Christian, we have a significant Muslim population, and there are still a few who are committed to the old gods. They make up the population and we live here in harmony and in tolerance of each other. It is one of the distinctive features of this country and it is one we want to preserve.” On New Year’s Eve, Bawumia celebrated with a Christian congregation, stating, “We have a country in which the Chief Imam, belonging to the Islamic Faith, celebrates his birthday in a church. And today, like in many instances, we have the Vice President who is a Muslim worshipping with Christians to mark the end of the year… These are a few of the many instances of such religious tolerance and coexistence we enjoy in Ghana.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives discussed with government officials the importance of mutual understanding, religious tolerance, and respect for all religious groups. Embassy officials also discussed these subjects with a broad range of religious groups and civil society organizations, including Christian groups such as the Christian Council and the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, as well as Muslim civil society organizations such as the Office of the National Chief Imam. They also engaged with the National Peace Council and Regional Peace Councils, whose governing councils include prominent religious leaders. In addition, the Ambassador underscored in meetings with key religious leaders that the United States supported an individual’s right to his or her faith as well as the right of individuals not to practice any religion. In April, the Ambassador published a Ramadan message recognizing interfaith engagement, cooperation, and partnership.

The embassy continued its support for the efforts of the West Africa Center for Counter Extremism, a local organization that brought together traditional leaders, interfaith religious leaders, political party leaders, and local government authorities to emphasize messages of peace, tolerance, and nonviolence to vulnerable youth.

Guinea

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The SRA continued to issue guidance outlining themes for discussion during Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. The stated purpose of the weekly guidance was to harmonize religious views in order to prevent radical or political messages in sermons. Although the SRA did not monitor sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and were responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives. Clerics whom the SRA judged to be noncompliant were subject to disciplinary action. Deviations from approved guidance were often reported in various sermons at mosques and other Islamic events, but the SRA said it had difficulty imposing disciplinary sanctions.

As part of its measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, the government closed all places of worship on March 26. During the month of Ramadan, according to local media reports, there were instances of mosques in Kamsar and Dubreka refusing to obey the government order and remaining open for prayers. In June, the government authorized reopening places of worship in regions with low COVID-19 case counts. The government announced on September 3 the full reopening of places of worship after religious leaders publicly called for a lifting of restrictions. Since the SRA holds a cabinet level position, sources stated that religious associations were able to effectively lobby the SRA, and in turn the government, that places of worship should reopen on the grounds that the government had previously approved numerous political rallies without proper health measures while keeping places of worship closed.

Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baha’i community have not requested official recognition. Some groups stated they preferred not to have a formal relationship with the SRA since a lack of recognition granted them more freedom, as they preferred not to be subject to state regulations in the same way as an officially recognized community.

Islamic schools were prevalent throughout the country and remained the traditional forum for religious education. Some Islamic schools were wholly private, while others received local government support. Islamic schools, particularly common in the Fouta Djallon region, taught the compulsory government curriculum along with additional Quranic studies. Private Christian schools in Conakry and other large cities accepted students of all religious groups. They taught the compulsory curriculum but did not receive government support, and they held voluntary Christian prayers before school.

The government allocated free broadcast time on state-owned national television for Islamic and Christian programming, including Islamic religious instruction, Friday prayers from the central mosque, and church services. The government permitted religious broadcasting on privately owned commercial radio, and encouraged equal time for Christian and Muslim groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials regularly met with the SRA and with representatives of the country’s religious groups, including the Grand Imams of Conakry, Kankan, Siguiri, and Labe; Catholic and Anglican bishops; and other Muslim and Christian clergy.

The Charge d’Affaires met with the country’s Grand Imam, Elhadj Mamadou Saliou Camara, at the Faycal Mosque, where he reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom, peaceful assembly, and interfaith dialogue. The Charge also thanked the Grand Imam for his work on encouraging peace across faith groups during turbulent elections in March and October.

The embassy posted messages through its social media platforms during the month of Ramadan encouraging religious tolerance.

In June, the embassy, through its various social media platforms, publicized how various faith communities and religious leaders in the United States worked together through shared common values of charity and community service to help neighbors in need during the COVID-19 global health crisis.

The embassy also promoted tolerance indirectly through its democracy and governance activities. Activities included engagement with influential local figures, including religious leaders, in order to amplify peace-building messages in communities afflicted by interethnic and religious tensions.

Guinea-Bissau

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In September, during a press conference, Attorney General Fernando Gomes expressed concern regarding how the right to freedom of expression was exercised in the country. He said that through mass media, including radio and internet, there was what he termed an “increasing wave of verbal attacks and insults by some citizens, often using abusive words that encourage hatred, ethnic, and religious divisions.” He exhorted citizens and the media to respect a diversity of opinions and to strengthen Guinean democracy by repudiating any form of inappropriate language.

On August 27, the government announced it would introduce the teaching of the Arabic language in schools. Minister of Education Arceni Balde stated that one of the objectives of the measure was to “place Muslim students at the same level as students from other religious denominations,” a stance that was heavily criticized by opponents of the decision. The president of the civil society group Movement of Conscious and Nonconformed Citizens said the Minister’s words were a sign of discrimination and further stated it was necessary “to condemn and denounce the appropriation of state institutions to foment tribalism and religious discrimination.” According to media reporting, various sectors of society regarded the initiative as an attempt to “reinforce the country’s Islamization.”

In September, President Sissoco said the proposal to introduce the teaching of Arabic in the country’s school system would not be implemented. He stated, “We are a secular country. In our society, in our system, Arabic is not part of our teaching. Here it is Portuguese, French, and English.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. The United States directs its engagement in the country from the U.S. embassy in Dakar, Senegal. In January, the Ambassador held a meeting with the Bishop of Bissau to discuss promoting peace and democracy in the country.

Kenya

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations continued to state the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately affected Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border. According to these groups, the government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture, forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, enforced disappearances, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship. The government denied directing such actions.

In December, the executive director for HAKI Africa, a human rights NGO that works extensively in Muslim communities in the coastal region and Nairobi, called on authorities to investigate cases of enforced disappearances, noting four Muslim individuals had disappeared within a week and were allegedly last seen in the custody of security authorities. One of these persons, 17-year-old Ramadhan Bakari, was later found dead in a city morgue. The family of another of these persons, Seif Omar Abdalla, said individuals armed with guns and grenades raided their home, beat Seif, and took him and two other men away.

In a July study conducted in three counties, the Institute for Security Studies and HAKI Africa reported Muslim respondents cited police brutality, extrajudicial killings, and religious profiling as drivers of tensions and mistrust between communities and security forces. Some respondents said authorities treated them as suspects when they tried to provide information on violent extremism and mistreated, harassed, or arrested them.

The government took steps, described by human rights organizations as limited and uneven, to address cases of alleged abuses by security force members. The governmental Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), established to provide civilian oversight of the work of police, continued to refer cases of police misconduct to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution. Public prosecutors, however, experienced delays in moving cases to trial and conviction. IPOA investigations led to two convictions of police officers during the year. In one case, IPOA reported that in March, the High Court sentenced a police officer to 20 years in prison for the 2014 attempted murder of a student in Garissa County, an area with a predominately Muslim population. The Muslim student was shot twice by a non-Muslim police officer, who then stole his cell phone.

In August, armed men reportedly abducted two Muslim clerics and a caretaker from a madrassa in Kilifi County. Rights activists and relatives said it was the police who abducted them. The three men were missing for almost two weeks before they returned home. Police officials denied involvement and were reportedly investigating the matter.

The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and thousands of religious group applications reportedly remained pending. The government has not registered any new religious organizations since 2014. Some religious leaders called on the government to resume registrations, stating the suspension interfered with the freedom of worship, including by making it more difficult to purchase property and conduct operations.

In January, a public secondary school in Kericho County suspended 17 Seventh-day Adventist students for refusing to take exams on a Saturday, the Church’s Sabbath, according to media reports. The school permitted the students to return after several days following advocacy by the families and the Atheists in Kenya Society, a registered society group.

In May, the government implemented a month-long cessation-of-movement order into and out of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood and Mombasa’s Old Town, both areas predominately inhabited by Muslims, following an increase in COVID-19 cases. Some residents and Muslim human rights groups said the lockdowns were discriminatory, stating the government had not ordered such measures in neighborhoods predominately inhabited by non-Muslims. The government publicly denied targeting Muslims. Other Muslim leaders, including representatives of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, expressed support for the government’s efforts to protect public health and said the government applied measures fairly across faith communities.

In June, the government appointed an Inter-faith Council on the National Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic to develop guidelines for the phased reopening of places of worship, which were closed in late March to stem the spread of COVID-19, and the holding of religious ceremonies. Council members and religious leaders familiar with the council’s work said government officials largely adopted the council’s recommendations, and the government permitted places of worship to resume in-person services in July with public health measures in place. Religious leaders reported local officials at times attempted to harass religious groups for allegedly failing to follow COVID-19 guidelines but said national government officials intervened to help resolve these issues. According to media, some religious leaders said there was a bias against places of worship compared to businesses when it came to reopening, noting the government allowed restaurants that met specific health requirements to reopen prior to places of worship. Many religious leaders criticized politicians for holding political gatherings that did not adhere to the government’s restrictions on public gatherings. The government convened national interfaith prayer services in March and October to address the pandemic.

Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab. In a survey conducted in six counties in late 2019, Muslim respondents said they believed authorities unfairly targeted them for security checks, making it difficult for them to move freely and conduct business. IPOA and human rights organizations reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi and coastal regions, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police. Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab. Some predominately Muslim ethnic groups, including Kenyan Somalis and Nubians, reported difficulties obtaining government identification cards. These communities stated government officials at times requested supporting documents not required by law and implemented vetting processes in a biased manner. In October, the Nubian Rights Forum and other human rights groups criticized the government for not taking sufficient steps to ensure minority religious and ethnic groups would be able to register for the new national digital identification card that were scheduled to be required to access all government services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, including senior police officials and local governments in the coastal region, where they especially stressed the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance, countering religiously based violent extremism, and addressing the grievances of marginalized religious and ethnic groups. Embassy staff continued to engage senior officials to underscore the importance of addressing human rights abuses by security forces, including abuses limiting the ability of minority religious groups to function freely in society, and supported a number of programs to improve police accountability.

The Ambassador and embassy staff met frequently with religious leaders and groups, including the IRCK, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Hindu Council of Kenya, National Muslim Leaders Forum, Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, and National Council of Churches of Kenya. Topics of discussion included the importance of religious groups in countering religiously based extremism and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as seeking guidance from religious leaders on human rights issues.

The Ambassador and visiting U.S. officials hosted several interfaith roundtables during the year to discuss issues and challenges facing various faith communities. Participants, including representatives of Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups, discussed building tolerance between and among faiths, encouraging the critical role religious leaders play in peacebuilding efforts, promoting government accountability, and combating corruption. In January and October roundtables, the Ambassador encouraged religious leaders to counter the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric of politicians and to focus on improving relations between ethnic and religious groups as the nation prepares for the 2022 national election. In April, the Ambassador engaged the leaders of more than 30 religious groups and faith-based organizations to discuss COVID-19 response efforts.

Embassy officials met individually with religious and civic leaders to urge them to continue to work across sectarian lines to reaffirm the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity. The embassy encouraged faith communities and other societal figures to regard religious diversity as a national strength.

Lesotho

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On January 10, the CCL, which represents the largest Christian groups, said in a statement that there was a risk the government and security agencies would not respect the rule of law during a period of political change leading to the May 11 collapse of the ruling coalition. The government did not take any action in response to the CCL statement.

On August 10, in response to the continued ban on in-person religious services as part of the government’s efforts to combat COVID-19, the Council of Pentecostal Churches of Lesotho publicly stated “the church is not a super spreader” like shopping malls and other businesses, which had been allowed to reopen, and the government should permit religious services to resume. On August 30, the government announced churches could hold services in groups of no more than 50 persons indoors and 100 persons outdoors.

During the year, churches owned and operated 83 percent of all primary and 66 percent of all secondary schools. The Roman Catholic Church, Lesotho Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and, to a lesser extent, Methodist Church were the primary operators of religious schools, which were publicly funded.

In practice, in any school offering religious education – including all religious schools and some secular schools – the subject was mandatory, according to parents and teachers. Despite the constitution granting the ability for students to opt out, there were no reports of students electing to do so.

The government continued to permit families to send their children to schools run by a religious group other than their own, and some families chose this option. Others went to public schools or secular private schools.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy discussed religious tolerance and the need to prevent discrimination against religious minorities, particularly the country’s small but growing Muslim community, with government, religious, and civil society leaders. Embassy staff also maintained regular contact with religious leaders, including leaders of minority religious communities.

Liberia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In March, Minister of Health Wilhelmina S. Jallah declared a national health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and designated as infected areas two of the country’s 15 counties, Montserrado (where the capital Monrovia is located) and Margibi. She then imposed a lockdown that closed places of worship as well as schools and businesses. The government allowed places of worship to reopen on May 15. The Muslim and the small Baha’i communities generally adhered to the government’s closure of places of worship, but according to the head of the LLC, some Christian religious groups resisted the measure. The Bahaʼi Spiritual Assembly, in keeping with the ban, suspended its New Year’s celebration, which was scheduled for March 19 and 20, and the National Muslim Council suspended all religious activities at mosques. The LCC, however, noted that during negotiations with the government before the lockdown, there was agreement that churches or other places of worship would not have to close but would only reduce overcrowding and observe other rules related to social distancing. Places of worship were ultimately required to close, but sources stated that the determination initially came as a surprise to the LCC, as negotiations before the closure were mainly about overcrowding.

On March 22, according to media reports, police inspector general Colonel Patrick Toe Sudue and several police officers raided the church of Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, pastor of the Chapel of Faith Ministries and an accused war criminal. They entered during a service and attempted to enforce the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and convince worshippers to leave. Johnson refused to halt the service, stating that the legislature remained open while houses of worship were being forced to close. Police threatened to arrest him if he held services the following week. The senator ended his March 22 church service early and did not hold a service the next week.

On March 26, a large group of worshippers of the Saint Assembly Church in the Old Road community in Monrovia gathered on a field and clustered together to worship and “pray for the nation.” According to media reports, members of the group refused to obey police, who used loudspeakers to tell the group to disperse. The police arrested some members but did not succeed in dispersing those assembled. It was reported that Saint Assembly worshipers also ignored a team from the LCC dispatched to the field to assist police with dispersing them. The worshippers eventually left, and the next morning, police took control of the field in which the church members had gathered.

In March 2019, President George Weah appointed Usmane T. Jalloh as the country’s first official Muslim religious advisor, to serve alongside two Christian advisors and to advise the President on issues relating to the Muslim community. On October 28, Jalloh stated that his office had worked out all the necessary modalities with the President’s office for the two religions to live together in harmony. For example, he pointed out that the government had agreed that for official programs, if the opening prayer is delivered by Christian, then a Muslim will perform the closing prayer. In June 2019, the government, for the first time, granted leave to Muslim civil servants to observe Eid al-Fitr.

Muslim organizations said they welcomed the President’s appointment of a Muslim religious advisor and the granting of paid leave. The organizations, however, continued to call for official recognition or observance of major Islamic religious holidays and cited Christmas and Fast and Prayer Day, which falls near Good Friday, as examples of officially recognized Christian holidays. Muslim organizations have advocated for recognition of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays since 1995. On May 24, at the end of Eid al-Fitr, Sheik Ali Krayee, Chief Imam of the Republic of Liberia and the head of the National Imam Council of Liberia (NICOL), called for legislation making Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha public holidays for Muslims a “social right.” The Chief Imam said Muslims should not support political candidates who did not support the legislation and promised that the Muslim community in the country would mount pressure for an Islamic holiday after the upcoming special senatorial election.

In response to Muslim demands for the legislature to enact into law the two holidays, the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, Jensen Seyenkulo, quoted in the Liberian Observer newspaper on May 27, stated that Christmas and Easter are celebrated worldwide and are not legislated in the country. He said that Fast and Prayer Day cut across every religion in the country and was not restricted to one religion and therefore was not a Christian holiday.

On August 4, dozens of Muslims, under the banner “Movement for Islamic Holidays in Liberia,” also petitioned the legislature to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays. According to spokesperson Ayoubah Dauda Swaray, the group was composed of 20 Islamic organizations, mostly youth driven, with members mainly from Montserrado and Margibi Counties. Swaray noted that the group had the endorsement of the National Muslim Council of Liberia and the National Imam Council of Liberia. According to Swaray, the petition stated that several Christian holidays are celebrated as national holidays, but there are no recognized Muslim holidays. According to Swaray, this lack of recognition marginalized the Muslim community. In receiving the petition, the chairman of the House Committee on Claims and Petition, Representative Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis, thanked the group for its peaceful assembly and assured them of legislators’ commitment to look through the matter and promised to present their request to the plenary for possible action. She also stated that, because the country is a secular state and there have been no religious holidays passed into law, the legislature would have to consider the request diligently before making any decision.

Members of the Muslim and Bahaʼí communities working in government or public positions said government agencies continued to be reluctant to grant time off to observe other religions’ holidays.

Religious leaders recommended the government engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social and other issues, such as COVID-19 awareness, political violence and disputes, and economic development, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators only after problems develop. On several occasions, as in the previous year, the Interreligious Council of Liberia (IRCL) called for and facilitated dialogue between the government and some opposition figures.

On July 30, when opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) leader Alexander Cummings and Representative Yekeh Kolubah were attacked by an angry mob in Grand Gedeh County for their criticisms of the Weah presidency, LCC Secretary General Christopher Toe said the LCC wanted to be a part of the mediating team but was hampered by financial and logistical considerations. As a result, the LCC called for financial support from the government and partners.

The LCC held discussions with authorities of the University of Liberia and representatives of student groups from the university and from the African Methodist Episcopal University, who staged a protest on August 17 against a mandatory eLearning platform for instruction launched by the universities due to the COVD-19 outbreak. The students wanted the platform to be made optional. They threatened mass protests and demanded the reopening of the university campuses in order to return to a more traditional style of learning. On September 15, the University of Liberia dean of student affairs announced that the state-run university would resume normal learning activities once the necessary health protocols prescribed by the Commission on Higher Education were met at the university. Following the LCC intervention, the students accepted this outcome.

On May 14, the LCC, together with National Muslim Council of Liberia and the Traditional Council of Liberia, mediated a conflict between the Council of Patriots, a prodemocracy movement, and the Liberia Business Registry. The dispute centered on the refusal of the latter to grant the Council of Patriots’ legal registration status due to what many members of the public saw as pressure from the government.

According to Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to employ a disproportionate number of Christian chaplains relative to Muslim chaplains in government institutions when compared with the religious demographics of the country. The government reportedly employed only two Muslim chaplains, one in the armed forces and one in the Supreme Court. In contrast, each of the 19 ministries reportedly had a Christian chaplain, while the Senate had five and the House of Representatives had two. Christian chaplains frequently read Christian prayers before starting official business.

The government continued to subsidize private schools, most of which were affiliated with Christian and Muslim organizations. The government provided subsidies to schools based on need through an application process, although Muslim leaders continued to say the subsidies disproportionately favored Christian schools

Human rights organizations continued to call upon the government to intervene in and investigate cases of persons who were injured or killed due to accusations of witchcraft, exorcisms, and trials by ordeal.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with government officials, including the President’s religious advisors and members of the legislature, to promote interfaith dialogue and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with issues relating to historical accountability, land disputes, and ethnic tensions.

Embassy officers regularly met with a variety of civil society and religious figures, including representatives of Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, and traditional religious groups, to discuss tolerance and the importance of religious leaders and adherents working to bring communities together.

The embassy worked with influential religious leaders to emphasize peaceful reconciliation practices as the country continued to cope with the long-lasting effects of its civil wars.

Libya

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Since religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers, a situation which worsened during the LNA offensive to seize the capital from April 2019 to June 2020. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups within the parts of the country it controlled was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.

According to one press report, the SDF, a nominally GNA-aligned militia in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians. Detainees of the SDF reported torture and other abuse while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.

Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. One Christian group operating in the country reported multiple accounts of a section within the SDF-run detention center at the Mitiga airbase where detainees who were Christian converts, “freethinkers”, or critics of Islam were concentrated. Some detainees in this section were reportedly subjected to torture.

Some detention facilities had no provision for non-Islamic burials.

The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers. The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to tribal and religious leaders. The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques or supervision of clerics.

Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani, who is regarded by the Muslim Brotherhood and others as the country’s Grand Mufti, said in a video broadcast on Al-Tanasuh TV, “If detonating oneself while carrying out a fedaai [self-sacrificial] operation rattles the enemy and brings upon it a crushing defeat, then it is allowed by sharia law. Many of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions threw themselves from walls. They sacrificed themselves and died in order to breach the enemy’s ranks.”

On June 17, in a program that aired on Al-Tanasuh TV, Al-Ghariani said that supporters of the LNA were in violation of sharia and were fighting as a proxy for a “Zionist project” meant to protect Israel and the enemies of God.

In Tripoli, according to civil society sources, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias and armed groups, such as the SDF, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.” There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.

The Ministry of Education continued to work to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four through nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance. The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

According to human rights activists, civil society figures, and politicians, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religion and politics.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Since the 2014 embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations there, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and to establish a unified, stable, democratic and tolerant Libyan state.

The Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora on September 16. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including MEC, the AOHRL, Human Rights Watch, and independent activists and researchers to address religious freedom issues. The embassy also continued to partner with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance.

Madagascar

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to Muslim leaders and media, nationality determination issues continued to affect Muslim community members, but to a lesser extent than before 2017, when the government adopted a new code of nationality. The 2017 code did not address the issue of children born of two stateless parents. These individuals remained unable to obtain citizenship, even after several generations of residence in the country. Under the nationality code, children with unknown parentage are to be evaluated based on appearance, ethnicity, and other factors. The 2017 changes in the code, however, allowed Malagasy mothers to confer nationality on their children, which Muslim leaders said appeared to ease the nationality determination problem somewhat. Muslim leaders continued to state the law affected the Muslim community disproportionately, since many members were descendants of immigrants and were unable to acquire citizenship, despite generations of residence in the country. Children of ethnic Indian, Pakistani, and Comorian descent often had difficulty obtaining citizenship, leaving a disproportionate number of Muslims stateless. A legislator proposing an amendment to the nationality code estimated in June that approximately 15,000 stateless persons could potentially take advantage of such an amendment.

The government continued to include Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha in the list of national holidays and consulted the Muslim community when setting the appropriate date.

City officials in Antananarivo maintained limitations on the hours of service for the Vahao ny Oloko (Release my People) evangelical Christian church. City authorities imposed restrictions in 2019 following neighborhood complaints of excessive noise at various hours of the day coming from the church. In response, church leaders relocated outside the city in October to avoid similar complaints and resumed their prior religious service schedule.

Some religious leaders stated that the government interfered excessively when imposing restrictions on the reopening of places of worship after a total suspension to prevent the proliferation of COVID-19. For example, the government prohibited the distribution of communion for all faiths, reportedly because of a perceived infection risk. A representative from the Presbyterian Church stated the prohibition on communion for all faiths was excessive since, he said, the Presbyterian Church’s ritual did not offer the same risk of disease transmission due to the use of individual and disposable equipment.

Religious groups stated the government did not always enforce registration requirements and did not deny requests for registration.

Religious leaders, including representatives of Vahao ny Oloko, continued to state that inadequate government enforcement of labor laws resulted in some employers requiring their employees to work during regular days of worship. Faith-based social centers, who received complaints from workers and labor unions, continued to report that employers failed to respect the labor code provisions requiring a 24-hour break weekly, which affected factory workers’ ability to attend worship services.

The leadership of the Muslim Malagasy Association reported some Muslims continued to encounter difficulty obtaining official documents, such as national identity cards and passports, and when requesting services from public administration offices because of their non-Malagasy-sounding names. They reported “harassment and mocking” by public service agents who considered them as foreigners even though they possessed national identity cards.

State-run Malagasy National Television continued to provide free broadcasting to Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians on weekends, and to the Muslim community once a week. During Ramadan, it provided additional broadcast time to the Muslim community. Vahao ny Oloko obtained free airtime to broadcast religious services every morning on public radio and television channels during the COVID health emergency and continued to broadcast after the reopening of churches.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives periodically met with government officials to discuss common concerns among different religious faiths, including statelessness issues.

On October 22, the embassy organized a virtual roundtable for religious leaders from different faiths to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on religious practices in the country. Participants shared experiences and ideas on alternative means of practicing their faith after authorities closed places of worship during the national health emergency. In addition, embassy officials interacted regularly with religious leaders, especially during the health emergency, to discuss the impact of COVID-related restrictions. Embassy officials also met with human rights organizations concerning religious freedom issues.

Malawi

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On January 4, the High Court in Zomba granted an injunction compelling the Ministry of Education to allow all Rastafarian children to be admitted and enrolled in government schools. The court action came in response to a case filed in 2017 that involved a child who was denied enrollment to the Malindi Secondary School in Zomba due to his dreadlocks, as well as another case in 2019, in which the attorney requested that the court ruling be broadened to cover all Rastafarian students. Following the issuance of the injunction, the Attorney General asked, and the attorney for the Rastafarian students agreed, to settle the matter out of court, since the Ministry of Education was willing to enforce the injunction. Implementation of the injunction became temporarily moot when schools were closed from March 20 to September 7 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon the reopening of schools, the Rastafarian student’s attorney received complaints from seven Rastafarian students who had been denied enrollment. The Attorney General and the attorney agreed that there was no legal justification for the denied enrollments. On October 23, the Attorney General and the attorney formally communicated their views to the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry agreed to enroll the students. At year’s end, all Rastafarian students were enrolled in school.

During the night of July 29, Blantyre City Council workers removed a street billboard that the Muslim Association of Malawi’s (MAM) Islamic Information Bureau had erected to advertise the Quran, following complaints by the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM). The billboard, which read, “If you have read the Old Testament and the New Testament, now read the Last Testament, The Quran, the Ultimate Miracle,” was said to be “unacceptable and a recipe for religious conflict in the country” by the Blantyre College of Spiritual Fathers. The interfaith civil society organization, the Public Affairs Committee mediated between EAM and MAM, and a reworked billboard message reading, “Read the Quran, the Ultimate Miracle” was agreed on by both sides.

In contrast with previous years, neither of the Muslim associations in the country reported that female students were asked to remove their hijab in order to have their pictures taken for secondary school examination identification cards. The two organizations also reported that there were no cases of Department of Road Traffic and Safety Services photographers asking Muslim women to remove their hijabs before taking photographs for driver’s licenses, as had occurred in previous years.

According to media reports, conflicts often arose related to school dress codes, established locally, prescribing a particular uniform and appearance that did not allow female students to wear the hijab. The conflicts most often arose when religious schools that received government money turned students away in violation of national policy. The reports stated that some religious school leaders believed, erroneously, that religious schools could make their own policies; in fact, only if they were fully private and received no government funds could they do so.

On September 18, a Joint Technical Team was established under the guidance of the Public Affairs Committee, comprising seven Muslims and seven Christians, to foster dialogue on general dress codes in schools.

Muslim organizations continued to request that the education ministry discontinue use of the optional “Bible knowledge” course and use only the broader-based “moral and religious education” curriculum in primary schools, particularly in predominantly Muslim areas. According to Alhaji Twaibu Lawe, the MAM secretary general, the issue arose most frequently in grant-aided, Catholic-operated schools.

Rastafarians continued to object to laws making the use and possession of cannabis a criminal offense in the country, stating its use was a part of their religious doctrine.

Religious organizations and leaders regularly expressed their opinions on political issues, and their statements received coverage in the media. On June 27, the Episcopal Conference of Malawi issued a statement on the successful conduct of the June 23 court-mandated presidential elections. On August 6, the Public Affairs Committee held an interfaith dialogue with Lazarus Chakwera, the newly elected President of Malawi, and publicly released remarks on the meeting.

In September, President Chakwera promised to open a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, the first African nation to do so. Foreign Minister Eisenhower Mkaka reiterated the plan during a visit to Israel in November. Commentators attributed the government’s ability to make this move, in part, to what they stated was the high level of religious tolerance in the country, noting the prior election of an Israeli-born Jew as a member of parliament.

Most government meetings and events began and ended with a prayer, usually Christian in nature. At larger events, government officials generally invited clergy of different faiths to participate. On July 16, President Chakwera declared three days of prayer and fasting for “religiously inclined citizens” against the COVID-19 pandemic. The President also asked citizens to observe a National Day of Thanksgiving on July 19. The prayers were conducted in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials engaged with representatives of religious groups from Christian, Muslim, and other faiths to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement.

On January 23, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith event to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day at which embassy officials and local religious leaders discussed interfaith coexistence and religious leaders’ and organizations’ relationships with the government.

The embassy facilitated discussions between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities and the visiting nonresident Israeli Ambassador.

Mali

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government and security forces struggled to tamp down violence generated by the spread of groups they described as violent extremist organizations in the northern and central regions of the country – including armed religious groups, as well as ethnically aligned militias. The presence of groups, identified by the government as violent extremist organizations, and armed groups in the northern and central areas limited government capacity to govern and to bring perpetrators of abuses to justice, especially outside the main cities.

In October, the National Secretariat for the Prevention and the Fight Against Violent Extremism in the Ministry of Religions Affairs and Worship, with the assistance of the UN Development Program, launched a study of factors influencing extremism related to religion. According to the ministry, the evaluation results, which were not released by year’s end, will form the basis of a new national action plan that includes interfaith efforts and promotion of religious tolerance.

A Moroccan-funded training program for 500 Sufi imams in Morocco, one objective of which was to improve interfaith tolerance, concluded in December 2019, with the fifth class of imams returning to the country.

The Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission launched in 2014 and renewed for an additional two years in 2019 continued operating during the year. In December 2019, the commission held its first public hearing, at which 13 victims of conflict recounted mistreatment they had suffered. The commission held a second public hearing on December 5 and heard cases ranging from abuses committed during a 1963 rebellion to 2019 mass killings in Ogossagou and Sobane Da. Both public hearings were broadcast on national television. As of December 16, the commission had heard the testimony of 3,329 individuals, compared with 5,324 in 2019, 3,592 in 2018, and 6,953 in 2017. Political events in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic, growing security concerns in the central and northern regions of the country, a lack of transportation for victims, and the lack of access in camps for displaced persons limited the collection of testimony. As of December 16, the commission reported it had collected more than 19,000 statements since it had begun its work in January 2017, including cases involving religious freedom violations.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship organized, in coordination with Archbishop of Bamako Cardinal Jean Zerbo, the annual Catholic pilgrimage to Kita, which took place in November. Cardinal Zerbo took part in the pilgrimage, as did the Union of Young Malian Muslims (UJMA). A UJMA representative marched from Kayes to Kita (approximately 250 miles) to demonstrate UJMA’s support for interfaith dialogue.

In November, the transition government announced the composition of a 121-member National Transition Council (its legislative body) that would include three seats reserved for representatives of religious organizations. The transition government’s Vice President reviewed applications and selected members of the council. Following the release of the names in December, representatives of the Catholic Church criticized the fact that no representatives of the Church were accorded seats.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to encourage the government to promote interfaith dialogue and to maintain a tradition of religious tolerance. The embassy also continued to highlight the importance of countering violent extremism, including through working with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship to support programs to counter violent extremism related to religion. Embassy officials worked with vulnerable communities to build their ability to address conflict, radicalization, and religious violent extremism.

The Ambassador and embassy officers spoke with a wide range of religious leaders and human rights organizations to promote religious tolerance, including Imam Dicko and other imams. They urged religious leaders to advocate for tolerance and peace among various social and religious groups.

In February, a visiting Muslim-American from New York discussed religious tolerance and diversity in the United States with students and young professionals, as well as the importance of religious tolerance in promoting peace and social cohesion and in combating violent extremism.

In March, the embassy released a video Ramadan greeting by the Ambassador on social media and sent letters to more than 40 mosques throughout the country highlighting the role of religious leaders in confronting challenges such as insecurity fueled by religious intolerance.

The embassy highlighted the importance of tolerance and respect for religious diversity on its social media throughout the year. In June, following a meeting with religious and civil society leaders regarding the country’s political crisis, the Ambassador said in a televised statement that religious leaders played an important role in creating a stronger, more democratic, and more stable country.

Mauritania

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In early February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of AREM, an association that promotes a secular state. Although several of those arrested were released after questioning, eight were charged with blasphemy and other offenses related to holding unauthorized meetings and using social media to attack Islam. Five of the eight were held in pretrial detention from February until their court hearing on October 20. The court did not to convict the eight men of blasphemy, which is punishable by death, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All eight were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five who were held in pretrial detention since February were sentenced to six- and eight-month prison terms, but the judge said that their time spent in pretrial detention would be counted towards their overall sentences, and the five were released by October 26.

The government continued to forbid non-Muslims from proselytizing, although there was no specific legal prohibition. The government continued to ban any public expression of religion except that of Islam.

The possession of non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government continued to prohibit their printing and distribution. The government maintained a Quranic television channel and radio station. Both stations sponsored regular programming on themes of moderation in Islam.

Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize. An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Islamic worship to the few recognized Christian churches. There are Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Citizens could not attend non-Islamic religious services, which remained restricted to foreigners.

On January 21, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani chaired the opening ceremony of the first international forum on the role of Islam in Africa. The government organized the forum in collaboration with Cheikh Mahfoudh Ould Boya’s forum for peace. The forum explored areas of cooperation among Islamic countries and published a statement outlining the importance of tolerance and moderation in Islam in Africa.

On May 6, the government adopted a draft bill to prevent violence against women and girls. The government adopted the bill after consultation with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the MIATE, which discussed ways to make the draft law more compatible with sharia principles. Although the draft law advanced in the legislative process, the National Assembly, which previously rejected two earlier drafts of this bill on grounds of “noncompliance with Islam,” had not voted on whether to adopt the law by year’s end.

During the year, relations between the government and leaders of the Islamist movement in the country continued to improve, according to media reports. On June 24, President Ghazouani met with the former president of the Islamist Tawassoul Party, Mohamed Jemil Mansour. The government also worked with Tawassoul, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, to adopt legislation aimed at mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country. The government continued to advance the draft Law on Associations (the “NGO Law”) through the legislative process. The law, once adopted, would change the registration system to make it easier for NGOs, including faith based organizations, to register and operate.

The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Islamic religious groups and other foreign partners to combat what it termed extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. On September 10, the MIATE organized a two-day meeting with the European Union and G5 Sahel member states, including Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger, at which they shared best practices for preventing violent extremism and stressed the importance of a moderate, tolerant version of Islam.

The government continued to provide funding to mosques and Islamic schools and universities under its control. The government also organized an examination to recruit 800 imams and prayer callers, which officials said enabled them to select imams who supported moderate versions of Sunni Islam instead of imams that supported Wahhabism. The government paid monthly salaries of 5,000 ouguiyas ($140) to 800 imams who passed the examination conducted by a government-funded panel of religious authorities. It also paid monthly salaries of 2,500-10,000 ouguiyas ($68-$270) to 30 members of the National Union of Mauritanian Imams, an authority established to regulate the relationship between the religious community and the MIATE.

Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation. Academic results in the classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determined further placement. Many students reportedly did not attend these classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. The Ministry of National Education and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level as a means of promoting Islamic culture and combating religious extremism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Islamic Affairs. Embassy officials raised religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, including throughout the pretrial detention period for those whom authorities accused of blasphemy and proselytizing. Embassy officials also met with senior members of Tawassoul to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom.

On several occasions, the Ambassador met with religious leaders to discuss issues related to religious tolerance. Visiting U.S. officials also routinely raised the importance of religious tolerance with a range of societal groups, including think tanks and journalists.

The embassy also frequently used its social media platform to share religious freedom posts, including on International Religious Freedom Day, in English, French, and Arabic.

Mozambique

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

During the year, attacks by Islamic State-Mozambique (IS-M) in Cabo Delgado escalated in intensity and complexity as they spread across the northern districts of the province. In this context, in an attempt to control the situation and stem the tide of violence, police arbitrarily arrested many individuals because they appeared to be Muslim by their clothing or facial hair, according to national Islamic organizations and other media reports.

Some NGOs, news media outlets, and human rights organizations strongly criticized the government’s response, including mass arrests, as exacerbating existing grievances of the historically marginalized Muslim-majority populations. As the attacks occurred in a Muslim-majority area, many civilian victims were Muslim as well, according to observers and administrators at camps for internally displaced persons.

IS-M publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS in June 2019. An ISIS press release in June reported that IS-M had affiliated with its Islamic State-Central African Province and claimed responsibility for more than 30 attacks since then. According to analysts, young men returning from studying Islamic teachings abroad following a more “austere” form of Islam than historically practiced in the country helped contribute to the radicalization of youth.

Reporting on the attacks remained limited and was often characterized as unreliable due to a strong security force presence, electricity and cell network blackouts, and what journalists termed a government-imposed media blackout in the region.

On August 31, President Nyusi met with the Bishop of Pemba, Luis Fernando Lisboa, who had faced social media threats from government supporters after he criticized the government’s response in Cabo Delgado. After the meeting, President Nyusi called Lisboa “our bishop” and emphasized the importance of dialogue and collaboration with the Catholic Church to help address the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict. Muslim leaders also expressed concern regarding the growing humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado.

In April, the government suspended all religious services, among other public and private gatherings, pursuant to a state of emergency (SOE) order issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it relaxed these restrictions in August to permit gatherings of no more than 50 persons. Local media reported that several religious leaders were arrested and fined for violating the SOE, and in one instance for hosting a large gathering of students at a religious school in the central province of Sofala. Observers indicated that SOE religious enforcement was not targeted against a particular religion but was enforced across all religious groups. A faith-based NGO reported that prior to resumption of religious services, the Minister of Health hosted religious leaders to discuss future steps and to share information on safely resuming services, consistent with the legal requirements, including a ban on persons younger than 18 and older than 65 attending services. The government established a commission that included Muslim and Christian religious leaders to monitor and inspect venues that had applied to resume services.

Religious leaders continued to express concern that a draft law on religious practices, proposed in 2019 that was still pending in parliament at year’s end, could prevent religious groups that have fewer than 500 followers from registering with the Ministry of Justice. Leaders of small religious communities expressed concern that the registration requirement would prevent them from registering their organizations. According to a religious leader, the draft law would also require followers to have their identities attested by a notary, which would create an administrative barrier to religious practice.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador engaged President Nyusi, Minister of Defense Jaime Neto, Minister of Justice Helena Kida, Interior Minister Amade Miquidade, and other senior officials on the escalating violence in the northern region. Among other messages, he noted the continued need to engage partners from the religious community to address effectively the violence.

Through a series of outreach initiatives, the Ambassador and embassy officers discussed the importance of religious tolerance to promote peace and security with leaders and representatives of religious groups.

The embassy engaged in digital outreach on social media during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha, welcoming continued engagement to achieve shared goals, commending their resilience in finding creative ways to celebrate during the pandemic, and encouraging continued observance of COVID-19 prevention measures during holiday celebrations.

Namibia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government Office of the Ombudsman stated it did not receive religion-related complaints during the year. A Muslim member of the interfaith council said that prison officials denied access to the leadership of his mosque to Muslim prisoners during Ramadan and also denied them halal meals. He attributed the lack of access to the ongoing inability of prisoners to update their religious status, an issue he was unable to address prior to a blanket suspension of prison visits by the Namibian Correctional Services pursuant to COVID-19 public health guidelines. He stated he intended to revisit the issue, which was the subject of 2019 complaint by inmates who converted to Islam while at a Windhoek correctional facility, with the Namibian Correctional Service when the pandemic threat has subsided.

The government periodically included religious leaders in discussions regarding issues affecting the country and in national events. President Hage Geingob held both formal and ad hoc consultations with leaders of major religious groups, including the interfaith council, the Council of Churches that represented Christian denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dutch Reformed Church, and Roman Catholic Church, and the Muslim community.

Religious leaders continued to state that they occasionally faced problems with the government regarding visas. The interfaith council’s Baha’i representative said that religious volunteers had difficulty obtaining visas due to their work not clearly falling into any of the country’s visa categories. The religious leaders stated nonreligious organizations and business people also had difficulty obtaining visas and did not believe they were targeted by the government based on religion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives engaged with the Office of the Ombudsman and the Namibian Correctional Services.

Embassy representatives, including at the senior level, met with religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and Muslim communities to better understand the country’s religious landscape and any potential problems of discrimination.

Embassy representatives also met with the interfaith council to discuss religious accommodation in prison, the lack of a religious organization registration category, and the general state of faith in the country.

Niger

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Implementation of the 2019 National Worship Strategy was hindered by COVID-19 restrictions, civil unrest, and the government’s focus on the December general election. The strategy’s six goals were to design and implement a plan for the location of places of worship; promote quality religious training; encourage educational and tolerant religious public discourse; ensure “adequate supervision” of religious practice; strengthen intra- and interreligious dialogue; and discourage violent religious extremism. The status of the planned National Worship Councils remained unclear at year’s end.

On March 17, the government decreed 10 measures to control COVID-19, including a ban on gatherings and social distancing requirements. On March 23 in Mirriah Commune, located 11 miles east of Zinder and approximately 550 miles east of Niamey, numerous young people took part in street demonstrations to denounce the government’s COVID-19-prevention ban on religious gatherings and the arrest of a local imam who refused to comply. Demonstrators barricaded the streets, burned tires, and set fire to the mayor’s office. Police and gendarmerie were dispatched to break up the riot. Media reported that several young men were wounded as a result of the confrontations. On March 27, following additional clashes in Zinder, police arrested a number of demonstrators. According to press reports, most of the demonstrators were followers of Imam Garin Malam, who had urged them to disobey the government’s restrictions on communal prayers.

On April 18, the High Islamic Council issued a statement urging Muslims to abide by government COVID-19 measures banning large public gatherings, including group prayers, during Ramadan. The council also urged Muslim leaders and preachers to conduct COVID-19 awareness campaigns. Large numbers of Muslims reportedly prayed at mosques the next day.

Cheikh Boureima Abdou Daouda registered as a candidate for the December 27 presidential election as the candidate of the Democratic Union of Renaissance Socialists (UDSR Martaba), a party he founded 20 years ago. Daouda was the first imam of the University of Niamey’s mosque to enter a presidential race.

The Islamic Forum, established by the government in 2017 to standardize the practice of Islam and prevent the spread of Islamic extremism, continued to liaise with the government.

Government officials continued to express concern about funding from Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and other countries for the construction of mosques and the training of imams, but according to observers, the government had only limited resources to track the extent of the funding and fully understand its consequences.

The government stated that it continued to face a series of persistent and growing security threats from the group alternatively known as “the Islamic State in West Africa,” or “the Islamic State’s West Africa Province,” formerly known as Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad, and commonly known as Boko Haram, a jihadist terrorist organization active in the region. Armed terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and groups affiliated with al-Qaida, ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS), and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA), attacked and killed both civilians and security forces, according to media. Boko Haram and ISIS-WA continued regular attacks in the Diffa Region in the Lake Chad Basin, while ISIS-GS and JNIM increased attacks in the border areas with Mali and Burkina Faso. Armed groups also reportedly conducted targeted campaigns of killings and threats against what they called “informants.” ISIS-GS and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim affiliates in northern Tillabery Region reportedly continued charging local villagers Islamic taxes, while members of terrorist organizations in western Tillabery Region reportedly burned government-funded schools, telling villagers their children should not attend secular schools.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives continued to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance through meetings with government and religious leaders. The Ambassador raised religious freedom with the Interior Minister and the Foreign Minister, encouraging broad engagement with Muslim associations in the government’s efforts to promote religious tolerance and counter extremist messages.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with representatives of Muslim and Christian groups to support intra- and interfaith dialogues intended to promote tolerance and understanding and to jointly tackle societal issues where religious leadership and tradition were driving factors, such as education for all and reducing early marriage. The Ambassador met with the president of the Islamic Association, also known as the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Niamey, on the eve of Eid al-Adha to discuss the role of faith in society and how it could help defeat extremism related to religion.

The embassy continued to sponsor programs with religious leaders nationwide focused on countering violent extremism related to religion and amplifying voices of religious tolerance. The embassy hosted a conference on August 28 titled “Preventing Violent Extremism in Youth Through Islam,” featuring Cheikh Oumarou Bizo as the guest speaker. Additionally, the embassy provided assistance in the design of new education programming in consultation with traditional and religious leaders, including scrutinizing school curriculum and texts for content that countered principles of religious freedom and tolerance.

Nigeria

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim Fulani herders. The government undertook 20 targeted military operations whose aim it stated was to root out bandits and armed gangs in the region and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence, but multiple sources stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the violence.

According to multiple academic and media sources, banditry and ideologically neutral criminality was the primary driver of violence in the North West region, although religious figures and houses of worship were often victims. The government launched additional security operations in the North West region that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian.

Various sources stated the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity, including ethnoreligious violence, throughout the country. The NGO International Crisis Group said in a report released during the year, “A further factor that has exacerbated violence in the North West is the state authorities’ negligence in dealing with the crisis.” The report said that many state governments relied primarily on arming vigilante groups to counter the violence, which it said was counterproductive. An ACLED report stated, “Responding to communal violence is not a priority of Nigeria’s state forces. A lack of government engagement leads to an increased reliance on local vigilante groups, and in turn, an increased accessibility to arms. Despite increasing their activity substantially since 2015, the overall presence of state forces is too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities or mitigate and suppress violence.”

In a speech given at the funeral of Michael Nnadi, a Catholic seminary student killed by gang members in Kaduna State on January 31, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah commented on the situation in the northern part of the country, saying the government and what he called “the northern Muslim elite” was largely to blame for violence and poverty, especially affecting Christians. In his address he said, “We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with religion. Really? It is what happens when politicians use religion to extend the frontiers of their ambition and power…By denying Christians lands for places of worship across most of the northern states, ignoring the systematic destruction of churches all these years, denying Christians adequate recruitment, representation and promotions in the State civil services, denying their indigenous children scholarships, marrying Christian women or converting Christians while threatening Muslim women and prospective converts with death, they make building a harmonious community impossible.”

On March 19, Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III stated at a Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC) meeting, “We have been reading and hearing reports about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and I keep asking myself how? Christians are being killed, Muslims are also being killed and they are all lives created by God. For me, there is no persecution of anybody in this country. If you claim there is a persecution of Christians in Nigeria, there would also be claims of persecution of Muslims, but that would not solve the problem. People claim they are denied places to build mosques, churches in some parts of the country. But the right thing to do in such cases is to approach relevant authorities and not to make claims of persecution. I can quote from now till the next 100 years of things that have been done or not done to Muslims, but we usually approach relevant authorities in ways that we believe would bring solutions to the problems.”

Some religious freedom activists said the Buhari administration was sympathetic to foreign Fulanis and that many state governors made it easy for foreign Fulanis to receive documents referring to one’s ancestral home that could facilitate access to government services or certain privileges, which compounded resource disputes and sectarian conflict. Some civil society representatives protested President Buhari’s appointment of primarily Muslim northerners to high-level positions. They said there was a culture of impunity in the country and a lack of accountability for those who commit mass civilian killings.

In June, the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief released a report, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?, in which the group stated, “Another of the main drivers of the escalating violence is the Nigerian Government’s inability to provide security or justice to farmer or herder communities.” The report stated the parliamentary group agreed with Amnesty International’s conclusion that “failure to protect communities, as well as cases of direct military harassment or violence, combined with an unwillingness to instigate legitimate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, ‘demonstrate, at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity’ on the behalf of some in the Nigerian security forces.” The government responded in August by welcoming the report as well as “inputs that would help any peaceful coexistence of Nigerian citizens,” although it said it was “incorrect to assert that the government was doing nothing to address the intertwined threats” of farmer-herder clashes and Boko Haram terrorists. It also urged the authors of the report “to visit Nigeria, whether formally or informally, to discuss the points raised” in it.

According to media reports, Operation Sahel Sanity, one of multiple government paramilitary operations in the north, destroyed 197 of what it termed bandit hideouts, killed 220 bandits, arrested 892 suspects, and rescued 642 kidnap victims in the North West region during the second half of the year. Despite this, the reports said that government was unable to keep pace with the growing number and frequency of attacks, saying this was mostly because the security forces in the country were too few and spread too thin and bogged down in the northeast fighting Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. In November, President Buhari asked his chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, to engage with political, traditional, and religious leaders throughout the areas of the country that had seen outbreaks of violence to combat insecurity and engage with the country’s significant youth population. Following the National Governors’ Forum meeting on November 5, the 36 state executives committed to guidelines to engage with religious, traditional, and civil society leaders to “drive a common agenda and generate…support for security personnel who ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Nigerians.”

The government’s proscription of the IMN remained in place throughout the year, following a Federal High Court ruling in 2019 and the government’s subsequent banning of the IMN as an illegal organization. The government continued to emphasize that the IMN’s proscription “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.”

Shia Rights Watch reported on January 23 that government forces used tear gas and firearms against protesters calling for the release of IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and authorities killed one protester and severely injured another.

Shia Rights Watch reported in June that the Federal High Court in Abuja awarded five million naira ($13,000) each for wrongful death to the families of three IMN members whom the police allegedly killed in July 2019. The judge also ordered the National Hospital to release the bodies of the three men. The body of a fourth individual, whom police also allegedly killed the same day, was not released but was kept in a different hospital.

An IMN spokesperson said police killed three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession in Kaduna on August 24 and a further two died in clashes with police on August 30.

On August 24, an IMN spokesperson confirmed that all IMN members arrested in the 2015 Zaria clashes with the army except Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife had been released by February, despite a December 2016 court ruling that El-Zakzaky and his wife be released by January 2017. Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. The Kaduna State High Court rejected El-Zakzaky’s motion to dismiss his and his wife’s case on September 29. On October 19, IMN members protested El-Zakzaky’s continued detention on the fifth anniversary of the violent clash with police in Zaria. On November 28, the High Court adjourned the case of El-Zakzaky and his wife to January 2021.

Blasphemy laws were part of the expanded sharia laws introduced between 1999 and 2000 in 12 Muslim majority states in the northern part of the country. Although in past years blasphemy laws were rarely, if ever, implemented, authorities arrested two individuals for blasphemy during the year. In September, a Kano State sharia court convicted and sentenced 16-year-old Farouq Omar, who had no legal representation at the time, to 10 years in prison and menial labor for committing blasphemy during an argument with a friend; after his case was reported in the press, Omar gained volunteer legal representation and his lawyers appealed the ruling. Various human rights groups and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) condemned the judgment and called for its reversal. The same Kano State sharia court in August convicted and sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Aminu-Sharif to death for blasphemy after he allegedly elevated a Tijaniyyah saint above the Prophet Mohammed in lyrics for a song he had written. Aminu-Sharif’s lawyers appealed the court’s decision. On April 28, authorities arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, without charge. His attorneys said they believed it was related to Bala’s alleged insulting of Islam on social media. Bala was detained in a Kano prison without formal charges but was granted access to his lawyer in October. On December 21, the High Court ordered the police and other federal authorities to release Bala; however, because he was in Kano State custody, he remained in detention at year’s end.

Criminal groups committed crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in North West and South East regions. According to security experts, this criminal activity increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year. Clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, according to Christian organizations, because they are viewed as soft targets who often travel conspicuously without security in the evenings, are typically unarmed, have access to money, and generate significant media attention. While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders. Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom. Federal and state governments responded to increased criminality in the region with new security initiatives. The Nigerian Police Force increased the number of police checkpoints on major road networks. State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Enugu Forest Guard, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services. Media reports often said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for these attacks, particularly those in the South West region, but, according to analysts, most incidents were perpetrated by local armed criminal groups.

According to Muslim leaders in Nasarawa State and Benue State governor Samuel Ortom, there were groups of foreign Sahelian nomadic Mbororo pastoralists present in the country since 2017 who were often mistaken for indigenous Nigerian Fulani herdsmen. Christian leaders throughout the country criticized what they stated was a formal role that state governments played in welcoming the influx of these foreigners in a situation of increased levels of poverty and reduced job opportunities for permanent residents. Yoruba sociocultural groups, community leaders, and politicians in Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti States increasingly employed what sources stated was incendiary speech against the Mbororo, blaming them for a rise in crime and accusing the “invading herdsman” of looking to “Fulanize the south.”

The government at both the federal and state levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches and mosques throughout the country closed, but state governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders. In March, both Christian and Muslim communities quickly complied when the government imposed quarantine measures; religious leaders said they underscored the necessity of staying home during Holy Week, including Easter, and the run-up to Ramadan. In Kaduna State, authorities arrested and arraigned two Christians on criminal disobedience charges on March 27 for attempting to hold church services, while three Muslims were charged with similar offenses on March 30 for holding congregational services in a mosque. Abuja officials arrested a prominent imam for violating stay-at-home orders but refrained from arresting a pastor who was preaching alone on camera at the Christ Embassy Church to worshipers online on Easter Sunday, April 12. In predominantly Christian Delta State, authorities arrested three pastors on Easter Sunday for violating lockdown orders issued the previous day. In Benue State, security personnel forcefully dispersed church services in remote areas where clergy disobeyed lockdown orders, although churches within city centers complied with the lockdown.

On July 8, police in Ohafia, Abia State, arrested Ifekwe Udo, the founder of the Assemblies of Light Bearer Greater Church of Lucifer, popularly known as the Church of Satan, for violating coronavirus pandemic lockdown directives. The following day, Christian youths stormed the church and demolished it. The town banished Udo in August after authorities released him from detention. At year’s end, he remained in exile in neighboring Imo State.

Beginning in June, the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions included reopening religious houses of worship that had pandemic prevention measures in place. In September, federal mandates limited public gatherings to no more than 50 persons in enclosed spaces. State-level mandates varied on the reopening of religious services as the pandemic progressed. In September, the Delta State government urged churches to hold multiple services to reduce the numbers of congregants at any one time in their buildings in compliance with modified coronavirus pandemic protocols. Due to the pandemic and Saudi Arabia’s closure of the Muslim holy places to international Hajj pilgrims, in August the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria announced that 90 percent of intending pilgrims declined a refund of their Hajj fare in lieu of a prepayment for the following year’s pilgrimage. The government similarly curtailed its sponsorship of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem in response to the pandemic.

On August 20, Jigawa State Hisbah authorities announced they had destroyed approximately 600 confiscated bottles of beer in Tundun Babaye village. In October, the Kano State government called for the arrest and prosecution of officials of the Nigerian Breweries company for arranging for the secret importation of beer, which is banned in the state on religious grounds.

Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them. In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed. The law was passed without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.

While CAMA, which President Buhari signed into law on August 7, neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations raised concerns about the law. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the prominent umbrella organization of the country’s Christian groups, and NIREC criticized CAMA as possibly unconstitutionally infringing on freedom of association and religion by placing some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of government. Under the new law, the federal government has broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members. On August 31, Buhari denied CAMA had any intentional religious discrimination and called on CAN to propose amendments to the law. On October 5 he appealed to those who were aggrieved with some laws to be patient and seek reforms in line with democratic practices.

NIREC, headed by the Sultan of Sokoto and the president of CAN, met in March to discuss insecurity and the rise of crime in the country as well as the probable impact of COVID-19 on the lives of citizens. NIREC called on people of all religions to follow government health regulations and maintain calm.

State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes. In September, religious and community leaders in the ethnically and religiously diverse Jos North Local Government Area in Plateau State pledged to live in peace and enhance economic development and tranquility following a two-day workshop organized by the African Initiative for Peace Building and Advancement. On October 14, Nasarawa State governor Abdullahi Sule, a Muslim, inaugurated the headquarters of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Christ in Alushi, calling on all Christians and Muslims in the diverse state to support his efforts to enhance peace, unity, and the development of Nasarawa.

Due to what sources stated was the promotion of peaceful coexistence by Plateau State governor Simon Lalong, in October, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS) began reconstruction of a mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004 in the predominantly Christian state.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate general officials as well as visiting high-level U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in meetings throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also addressed religious tensions and efforts to bring religious groups together with several state governors, religious leaders, and other officials throughout the country. They discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence, combat insecurity, and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance.

Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups, including CAN, JNI, JIBWIS, and others throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings, such as the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace’s Third Annual Peace Conference on Interreligious Dialogue: Strengthening the Culture of Peace, Reconciliation and Justice on January 22. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities facing affected communities. In October, a visiting high-level delegation from the Department of State, led by the Counselor, met with various religious and government leaders to discuss the religious freedom environment. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives regarding the main drivers of conflict in the country.

The embassy funded peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna, Plateau, and Nasarawa. The programs trained leaders in farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts. “Peace ambassadors” from embassy-funded projects continued to work to bridge the gap between victims, traditional/religious leaders, and the security apparatus in Kajuru, Kaduna State. During the months of the countrywide lockdown, they visited potential conflict areas to support victims of crisis, provided support to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to promote dialogue among stakeholders to deter reprisal attacks and promote sustainable peace.

The embassy expanded activities to reduce violent conflicts in the affected religious communities by promoting social cohesion, religious freedom, and the ability to mitigate community disputes peacefully without degenerating into ethnoreligious conflict. It also intensified its work on religious freedom issues through an existing five-year program in six northwest and north central states. This activity provided interfaith dialogue training to leaders with the goal of building capacity among communities to manage disputes. The program produced English and Hausa-language radio programs designed to deepen community engagement in peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Republic of the Congo

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On June 24, the government relaxed its COVID-19 restrictions under a nationwide state of health emergency and allowed religious organizations to host services for no more than 50 persons, as long as they provided hand-washing stations and observed social distancing. The Ministry of Interior warned that it would fine and potentially close violators. At year’s end, the government had not fined any religious organizations for violations.

Despite the easing of restrictions, the Islamic High Commission publicly announced the closure of mosques for prayer due to the inability to practice social distancing and limit the numbers of patrons during prayer at the mosques. At year’s end, mosques remained closed voluntarily.

As in previous years, the government granted Christians and Muslims access to public facilities for special religious events before COVID-19 restrictions began in March.

According to the head of the largest mosque in Brazzaville, members of the mosque housed visitors in their homes rather than in the mosque in compliance with a government decree banning Muslims from foreign countries from spending the night in mosques.

In June, all 18 churches closed in 2019 due to lack of adherence to building, safety, and noise codes reopened and remained operational after completion of building upgrades.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues with government organizations and officials. Topics discussed included interfaith relations and preventive measures to limit the effects of COVID-19.

The embassy supported virtual events with religious leaders and youth groups to discuss community engagement and the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Embassy representatives encouraged efforts to increase dialogue and communication at the local, regional, and national levels. The embassy supported training of local religious leaders, as well as health and security officials, while coordinating and distributing vital personal protective equipment. Embassy officials met separately with Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i leaders to discuss the state of religious tolerance and cooperation.

Rwanda

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

During the year, many places of worship remained closed because they failed to make government-mandated infrastructure improvements to address health and safety standards or noise pollution ordinances. Government officials stated that these requirements were necessary to protect the health of worshippers and said that while some places of worship had been closed, religious organizations were not prohibited from operating. They stated that time and resource constraints prevented many religious groups from bringing their places of worship into compliance with government requirements during the year, and added that many religious groups made arrangements to worship elsewhere until they could make improvements to their facilities. Of the 8,760 places of worship that were closed in 2018, the government reported 2,016 were allowed to reopen as of December 2019 after making required improvements. An additional 215 places of worship were allowed to reopen during the year after making required improvements.

Civil society and religious leaders reported that most places of worship that were not in compliance in 2019 continued to be out of compliance during the year and thus remained closed. They stated the required improvements were often prohibitively expensive for organizations of modest means (which constituted the majority) and that the economic effects of COVID-19 had left them with limited resources to make improvements.

Religious leaders said the same requirements applied to places of worship in both urban and rural areas and that the government applied the same infrastructure improvement requirements in urban and rural areas without regard for the level of economic development in the area. Religious leaders raised concerns that long-term closures of places of worship would negatively affect education and economic development in their communities because FBOs and religious groups often sponsored schools and provided access to finance through lending groups or banking services.

Media reported several cases in which local officials broke up groups that had gathered to pray in homes or in caves in contravention of COVID-19-related government prohibitions on mass gatherings, including those for religious purposes. In July, the government announced that places of worship could resume holding services after implementing COVID-19 preventive measures and obtaining approval from local authorities. Government officials stated that the government coordinated closely with religious leaders to develop guidelines on hand washing, physical distancing, and other safe practices that would allow for the resumption of services. Government and religious group representatives reported that many groups resumed services in line with these guidelines, although some groups in rural areas found meeting the requirements difficult.

In August, the government eliminated a requirement in the law mandating that civil servants and teachers swear an oath of allegiance to the country as a condition of employment. Jehovah’s Witnesses had long sought this change on the grounds that the oath requirement violated their religious beliefs and constituted a major barrier to employment. The amended law requires an oath only for elected offices. Jehovah’s Witnesses noted parliamentary debate on the issue featured parliamentarians advocating for the law to be changed to make it more inclusive of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Government officials presiding over wedding ceremonies generally required couples to comply with the legal requirement that they take a pledge while touching the national flag, which ran counter to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious beliefs. The government sought to accommodate Jehovah’s Witnesses by allowing them to request modified wedding ceremonies without the flag pledge, although many couples reportedly faced delays arranging a ceremony with that special accommodation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses students faced sporadic challenges with respect to military and patriotic activities and certain religious services at school. Although the law protects students’ rights not to participate in these activities, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that some school administrators of both public and religious schools were not aware of or did not enforce those protections.

Civil society leaders reported that the government pressured prominent religious leaders to be “positive” personalities and refrain from making statements in conflict with government policies.

Muslim community leaders stated that they maintained a collaborative relationship with the National Police and continued to work to combat extremism and radicalization in the Muslim community. Leaders said that they conducted training throughout the year to educate young Muslims about the dangers of extremism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives continued to engage with government officials and religious organizations on the FBO law and its implementation. Embassy representatives discussed the law with government officials and encouraged the government to maintain clear channels of communication with religious groups and FBOs. Embassy representatives urged the government to be flexible in the application of government regulations and to work with religious groups and FBOs to reopen places of worship. Embassy representatives closely monitored whether COVID-19-related enforcement of public health directives affecting religious groups were applied consistently across all parts of society.

The embassy hosted interfaith discussions focused on religious diversity and how faith groups could help their communities cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, the Ambassador hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives of Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Muslim communities. The groups discussed the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance and highlighted the benefits of interfaith cooperation for the country.

Senegal

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

As part of the government’s strategy to contain COVID-19, President Macky Sall in mid-March closed down mosques and churches, prompting at least one protest by hundreds of worshippers at a Dakar neighborhood mosque. The restrictions were eased in mid-May and houses of worship were allowed to reopen.

Some Muslim religious leaders continued to oppose child protection bill pending in the National Assembly since 2016. The pending bill calls for increased child protection services and measures to combat the trafficking of children, an abuse that the NGO Anti-Slavery stated occurred in some Quranic schools, or daaras. The government continued to work closely with Muslim religious leaders to gain support for the campaign and for other initiatives. A draft bill introduced by the government in 2018 to regulate the status of daaras also remained pending and was not introduced to the National Assembly. Civil society and children’s rights advocates continued to appeal to the government to pass new legislation to regulate daaras more effectively and to prosecute Quranic teachers who committed serious abuses against children, including forced begging and physical and sexual abuse.

The government continued to provide direct financial and material assistance to religious groups for use primarily in maintaining or rehabilitating places of worship or for underwriting special events. There continued to be no formal procedure for applying for assistance. All religious groups continued to have access to these funds and competed on an ad hoc basis to obtain them. President Macky Sall occasionally visited and supported beneficiaries of these funds.

The government did not ban the October Magal Muslim pilgrimage to the religious city of Touba. The leader of the Mourides Sufi brotherhood, Serigne Mountakha Mbacke, issued the call for pilgrims to attend despite the pandemic. Prior to the event, the government expressed approval of the event, noting the organizers would deploy 500 persons throughout the city to ensure compliance with pandemic mitigation efforts. Although the crowd was noticeably smaller than the millions that typically participate, tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered at the Great Mosque in Touba, including government ministers and dignitaries.

The Ministry of Education continued to provide partial funding to schools operated by religious groups that met national education standards. It provided the largest share of this funding to established Christian schools, which in general maintained strong academic reputations. The majority of students attending Christian schools continued to be Muslim. The Ministry of Education reported approximately 50 percent of primary school students again participated in religious education through the public elementary school system during the year. The government also continued to fund a number of Islamic schools, which officially enrolled approximately 60,000 students. There were 316 registered Catholic schools, accommodating approximately 120,000 students. Local experts noted that unregistered Islamic schools outnumbered Catholic schools, as many parents informally sent their children to these establishments to learn the Quran.

The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Women, Family, Gender, and Child Protection continued to monitor domestic associations, including religious groups and NGOs affiliated with them, to ensure they operated according to the terms of their registration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued the same practice with foreign-based NGOs, including those affiliated with religious groups. Each association submitted an annual report, including a financial report, which the ministries used to track potential threats against national security.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with federal and local government officials to discuss conditions daara students faced, as well as the government’s efforts to combat forced child begging. Discussions also included the resilience of religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Embassy officials also met with religious leaders in Dakar and with local religious authorities in Ziguinchor, Touba, and Tivaouane to discuss forced child begging, daara conditions, and COVID-19-related issues.

The embassy sponsored the participation of 10 religious and educational leaders in a virtual discussion with U.S. officials on education, resilience, respect, and inclusion. It also sponsored two webinars with the Timbuktu Institute on combating violent religious extremism and promoting positive dialogue, understanding, and tolerance among youth in the Casamance region and Dakar.

The embassy supported several local women-led groups that helped care for children in daaras to prevent child begging, and supported efforts by local governments in Dakar to support and monitor daaras. Embassy officers visited a Quranic boarding school in Kaolack and discussed the issue of forced child begging. The Ambassador awarded the school’s director with the Ambassador’s Award for Excellence in Education.

Sierra Leone

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to Rastafarians, the government continued to enforce a law prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. Rastafarians said this prohibition was an infringement on their religious freedom to access cannabis, a core component of their religious practices.

Religious organizations and leaders stated that dialogue with the government continued to be limited. They also said regular engagement on matters of peace and national cohesion was lacking from government organizations responsible for religious affairs. Early in the year, the government consulted the IRC to gain support in containing the COVID-19 pandemic through social mobilization and an awareness-raising campaign. The IRC submitted a report on its response to COVID-19 to the President, detailing its compliance with the prohibition on religious gatherings; the President then presented the report to the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Center (NaCOVERC). NaCOVERC authorities, including the Office of the National Security, Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Education, on two occasions met with the IRC to discuss COVID-19 prevention strategies.

In March, Muslim and Christian leaders publicly announced their support of the government’s prohibition of social gatherings, including congregation in mosques and churches, as preventive measures responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, embassy representatives met with officials from the Ministry of Social Welfare to discuss membership of the Rastafarian community in the IRC. The embassy promoted religious freedom through dialogue with NGOs such as the IRC and the UCI. The embassy also supported a broad range of civil society, media, local governance, and inclusive public dialogue activities to advance free, peaceful, and pluralistic expression among all parts of society, including religious communities. Among dialogue and media activities were peaceful, local discussions that involved key local actors, including religious leaders.

Somalia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The federal government continued to confront multiple challenges, including a persistent threat from al-Shabaab, a stalemate in relations with the FMS governments, and attempts by external actors to increase influence at the subnational level. Despite the government’s reported attempts to strengthen governance, reform key security institutions, and carry out operations to combat al-Shabaab, the terrorist group continued to carry out attacks regularly in the capital and to control large land areas throughout the southern and central parts of the country.

Federal and FMS governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam. The federal government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction.

According to Somaliland Today and international reporting, on October 5, Somaliland authorities arrested a married couple in the village of Mohamed Mooge for Christian proselytizing. The arrest prompted calls from some religious leaders for the two, who are converts from Islam to Christianity, to be charged with apostasy under sharia. While not prohibited under Somaliland’s penal code, international community observers said they feared the apostasy charge could carry the death penalty. According to Christian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) tracking the case, on November 5, the couple was “deported” to Mogadishu upon the order of a Somaliland court.

The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement a new national curriculum framework, declaring that a secular education with a focus on Islamic values and instruction in Somali was important in order to counter efforts by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law. By year’s end, however, parliament had not passed the draft law establishing the new system. The initiative mandates Somali as the language of instruction for primary school, Islamic religious instruction at all levels, and Arabic-language Islamic religion courses at the secondary level. Muslim clerics helped create the new materials and trained teachers in Islamic ethics, according to ministry representatives.

South Africa

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government’s strict lockdown, imposed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, included bans on religious gatherings. Police stringently enforced the lockdown, which lasted through Easter and Ramadan, prompting complaints from some religious groups. Police broke up several Ramadan gatherings and made arrests, during which they were filmed making disrespectful remarks to worshippers. The Police Minister later apologized for the remarks. In May, the President eased restrictions on houses of worship following consultation with the South African Council of Churches. The revised regulations limited gatherings to 50 persons. Some church leaders said the limit was too small. Bishop Bheki Ngcobo of the South African Zionist Church demanded “compensation” from the state for the months of closure. Police arrested Ngcobo in May for violating the lockdown; he also called on Christians to disobey the President’s order regarding the size of religious gatherings. Authorities released Ngcobo after he admitted guilt and paid a fine of 1500 rand ($100).

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said in June that he would not put in place interim measures to legalize the religious marriages of Muslims who died of COVID-19. As the state does not recognize religious marriages, the law particularly impacts Muslims who do not undertake civil marriages because of the prohibition against polygamy in civil unions. Women’s rights organizations, human rights advocates, and some Muslim leaders stated they had sought legislation to provide legal recognition of Muslim religious marriages for many years, but the problem became acute during the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that the Muslim Marriages Bill has not made any progress in parliament since it was introduced in 2010. Some individuals said the Minister’s declaration that he could not legally recognize Islamic religious marriages meant that death certificates issued for decedents married under Islamic religious rites listed them as “never married,” which they said caused both insult as well as hardship to survivors with regard to their benefits and inheritance. Following Motsoaledi’s remarks, the Supreme Court of Appeal in December upheld a 2018 ruling of the Western Cape High Court that declared unconstitutional the nonrecognition of Muslim marriages. The court said the nonrecognition violated women and children’s constitutional rights and gave the government 24 months from its ruling to either enact new legislation or amend the existing legislation to ensure recognition of Muslim marriages as valid marriages.

In August, a Durban man who publicly acknowledged he opposes Islam won a court case restricting the call to prayer from being heard inside his house. The complainant told the court that the Madrasah Taleemuddeen Islamic Institute, which is situated approximately 65 feet from his house, sounded its call to prayer five times a day, with its first call at 3:30 a.m. The judge at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court ordered the mosque to reduce the volume of its call to prayer to ensure it was not audible inside the neighbor’s house. The complainant argued that the prayer call deprived him of enjoyment of his property rights and gave the neighborhood a “distinct Muslim atmosphere.” The Islamic Institute stated its intention to appeal the ruling. Several academics, human rights advocates, and leaders of Muslim organizations described the ruling as “shocking” and in conflict with constitutionally protected rights. City authorities in Pretoria issued a notice on August 28 ordering a mosque to stop broadcasting the call to prayer through loudspeakers. Faisal Suliman, chairman of the South Africa Muslims Network, urged the Muslim community to challenge both orders.

In January, the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) withdrew charges against Major Fatima Isaacs, who in 2019 was charged with disobeying a lawful instruction for refusing to remove the hijab she had worn under her military beret for more than a decade. Isaacs had previously been granted interim relief while the SANDF reviewed its dress code.

In July, the new CRL chair stated, “The issue of regulation of religion is still on the plate….Parliament will have to take a position on whether religion is regulated or not.” Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa, and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their continued opposition to a 2016 CRL legislative proposal requiring religious groups to register, on the grounds that it would restrict their religious freedom. The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and would create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders’ permission to operate. The proposal remained with the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs at year’s end.

Throughout the year, CRL examined allegations of sexual abuse, cult-like practices, and financial malfeasance against leaders of various religious organizations in a continued push to protect congregants from abuse and fraud. In December, the Johannesburg High Court dismissed an application by Bishop Stephen Zondo of the Rivers of Living Waters Church to stop the CRL Commission from holding public hearings on allegations of sexual abuse against him. The CRL also launched an investigation into the KwaSizabantu Mission after media outlet News24 documented allegations of sexual assault, psychological and physical abuse, and financial crimes. The self-proclaimed Malawian prophet and owner of an international investment company, Shepherd Bushiri, and his wife faced charges of defrauding congregants of the Enlightened Christian Gathering. After they fled to Malawi in November, South Africa served Malawi with an extradition request for the couple that included charges of theft, fraud, forgery, rape, and failing to comply with bail conditions in South Africa.

In November, a district court judge in Randburg sentenced Matome Letsoalo, a freelance writer, to three years’ imprisonment, suspended for five years, for threatening and abusive social media messages sent to the Jewish community and the SAJBD. According to media reports, this was the first criminal conviction resulting from an anti-Semitism case in the country. The tweets included swastikas, burning Israeli flags, and text, including, “@SAJBD The #Holocaust Will be like a Picnic When we are done with all you Zionist Bastards. [Expletive] All of You.” The judge noted that the sentence was the maximum term allowed by law and the suspension was due to Letsoala’s guilty plea. The judge further stated that his messages were “hateful” and against the constitution, and anti-Semitic messages were becoming all too prevalent in the country. The SAJBD national director welcomed the outcome as an important precedent and said the verdict sent a “strong message that threatening and hate-filled attacks on the Jewish community” would not be tolerated.

During the year, the draft Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, first introduced in 2018, remained stalled in the justice committee, and no debates occurred. A ruling by the Constitutional Court concerning the definition of hate speech as it relates to the decade-old John Qwelane case was expected in 2021 and observers said it would have a bearing on parliamentarian deliberations. The hate speech bill would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon a number of categories, including his or her ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual and gender identity, health status, employment status or type, or physical ability. The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest and punish offenders, and it would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses. Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, civil society groups and NGOs, stated the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives engaged with religious leaders and NGOs, including individuals from the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Muslim Judicial Council, Islamic Council of South Africa, Inner Circle (a Muslim lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex organization), Hindu Maha Sabha, Christian Coalition, Christian Social Services, American Jewish Committee, SAJBD, South African Secular Society, Freedom of Religion South Africa, and Atheist Movement of South Africa to discuss the environment for religious freedom and concern about cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Other topics of discussion included pending draft bills that remained stalled in committees at year’s end: the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill; the Muslim Marriages Bill; and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.

South Sudan

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to local media, three South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) soldiers attacked members of the Revival Movement Church in Loka West, Central Equatoria, on Christmas Eve. The Archbishop of Central Equatoria and Bishop of the Diocese of Lainya said the soldiers forced church members to drink alcohol and locked five men in a hut before setting it on fire. The soldiers reportedly abducted and raped three women, forcing them to carry looted property to SSPDF barracks. Fifteen persons were injured in the attack, which the Archbishop stated was the second incident in which soldiers forced Christians to drink alcohol. The Archbishop said they reported the attack to the SSPDF in Lainya, and the soldiers were arrested two days later.

Local and international media reported the arrest on April 26 of Abraham Chol Maketh, leader of the Cush International Church, for violating presidential directives banning all gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Users expressed outrage on social media after photographs became public showing Maketh in a police car, stripped of his clothes. According to a police spokesperson, Maketh removed his clothes during the encounter, resisted arrest, and verbally assaulted officers. The courts charged Maketh under five sections of the penal code, including causing a public nuisance and criminal intimidation, and he received a one-month sentence. He was released after spending less than a week in Juba Central Prison.

Both Christian and Muslim prayers were given to open most official events, with the government often providing translation from English to Arabic.

Government officials included both Christians and Muslims. President Kiir Mayardit, a Catholic, employed Sheikh Juma Saeed Ali, a leader of the country’s Islamic community, as a high level advisor on religious affairs. Additional Muslim representation in government included at least one governor and 14 members of the 400-member Transitional National Legislative Assembly.

Although not mandated by the government, religious education was generally included in public secondary school and university curricula. Theoretically, students could attend either a Christian or an Islamic course, and those with no religious affiliation could choose between the two courses. Because of resource constraints, however, some schools offered only one course. Christian and Islamic private religious schools set their own religious curriculum without government mandates on content.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials raised concerns with government representatives regarding conflict-related violence and its impact on religious workers. They also expressed this concern to religious leaders. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly participated in discussions with leaders of the South Sudan Islamic Council, South Sudan Council of Churches, Episcopal Church of Sudan, Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church, and Catholic Church on faith-based peace initiatives, implementation of the peace agreement signed in 2018, and religious tolerance. In January, the embassy hosted an interfaith reception for Christian and Muslim leaders, highlighting its support for the role religious leaders have to play in peace-building and reconciliation.

Sudan

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Investigations continued into incidents in which government forces under former President Bashir allegedly attacked protesters outside mosques during antigovernment protests that took place from December 2018 to April 2019.

In July, the rebel group SPLM-N, active in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States and led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, extended and signed a cessation of hostilities. Al-Hilu called for the separation of religion and state with no role for religion in lawmaking. He had previously made repeated statements that sharia was incompatible with basic freedom for the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States and was his primary rationale for armed struggle against the Bashir government. Bloomberg News reported that on September 3 in Addis Ababa, PM Hamdok and al-Hilu signed a declaration of principles that included the separation of religion and state. In November, a follow-up workshop on the declaration of principles was held between the SPLM-N and CLTG.

CSW reported that on August 13, a judge in Khartoum sentenced a Christian woman to two months’ imprisonment and a 50,000-Sudanese-pound ($910) fine for dealing in alcohol, despite amendments to the law that exempt non-Muslims from that prohibition except in cases where they supplied alcohol to Muslims.

During the year, the MRA recovered more than 48 endowments, with assets totaling more than $397 million, according to Minister Nasreddine Mufreh. The ministry also recovered assets from seven endowments located in Saudi Arabia. Under the former regime, sources stated that ministries funded their budgets by usurping endowments, properties, or services from the MRA. The MRA had opened its investigation into allegations of corruption pertaining to endowments and Hajj and Umra pilgrimages to Mecca in December 2019.

Although the MAA abolished the death penalty for apostasy, minority religious groups, including Shia and other Muslim minorities, expressed concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they expressed beliefs or discussed religious practices that differed from those of the Sunni majority. Some Shia said they remained prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs, and local media exercised self-censorship to avoid covering religious issues, due to concern regarding receiving a negative response from members of society.

Morning Star News reported that on March 11, the MRA abolished government-appointed committees imposed on churches under the Bashir government. Reverend Yahia Abdelrahim Nalu, head of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, described the abolition as a positive step. Church leaders said further legal action would be needed to regain some church properties lost under the former committees.

On October 19, a criminal court in Omdurman acquitted the SCOC leadership committee of criminal trespass and illegal possession of SCOC properties. The government had reopened the 2019 case in July despite a 2018 court ruling that the SCOC national leadership committee led by Moderator Ayoub Tilliano had ownership of the SCOC headquarters in Omdurman. The case arose from a 2015 raid by security forces on the SCOC headquarters, after which the security forces confiscated all of the group’s legal documents and brought charges against the leadership council for trespassing. The SCOC retained ownership of the headquarters.

In previous years, government security services reportedly monitored mosques and imams’ sermons closely, and they provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons. According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued this practice. Throughout the year, religious leaders’ sermons were varied and were sometimes critical of the CLTG.

Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but observers said authorities did not allow Shia prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular, according to SCOC and Roman Catholic clergy.

Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient non-Muslim teachers to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity. Although the law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, some schools did not excuse non-Muslim students from these classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes. Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their church communities.

On December 30, the Islamic Edict Council of the MRA prohibited the use of sixth-grade history textbooks because the books contained content that countered Islamic doctrine. Clerics also argued the newly proposed curriculum glorified Western history.

Local parishioners continued to state that compared with Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by unclear zoning laws.

According to CSW, the Governor of Gezira State authorized the construction of four church buildings on empty land, three for SCOC and one for an evangelical church. This was the first time land had been granted to Christians since 2005.

The CLTG granted Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status, which the Bashir government had only granted to Islamic relief agencies. Christian churches reported authorities no longer required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles. Church officials said the CLTG also dramatically eased restrictions. The CLTG increased the number of visas and resident permits it granted foreign Christian missionaries.

In July, Minister of Justice Naseredeen Abdulbari said the MAA was necessary to guarantee freedoms outlined in the 2019 constitutional declaration. He said the Ministry of Justice had abolished the death penalty for apostasy because it threatened social peace by putting people’s lives in danger, and that the new criminal law required prosecutors to protect the lives of those accused of apostasy.

In September, MRA Minister Mufreh said the 2019 constitutional declaration granted religious groups the right to worship as long as their practices did not infringe on others’ rights or instigate religious strife.

The MRA Minister hosted roundtables with religious leaders and civil society throughout the year on coexistence and tolerance. In October, the Minister hosted an event on religious freedom and coexistence entitled, “A Sudan for All.” PM Hamdok provided opening remarks and stated religious freedom “is the root of all human freedoms.”

In May, during Juba Peace Talks between the CLTG and the SPLM-N, both sides agreed to create an independent religious freedom commission to work through religious freedom issues from the previous regime.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy staff met regularly with government officials and urged officials from the Foreign Ministry to rescind blasphemy and apostasy laws hindering religious freedom. In addition, embassy officials encouraged the government to develop an inclusive education curriculum and abstain from confiscating church property, establishing government appointed church committees, and restricting visas for foreign missionaries. To highlight efforts to address governmental interference in the internal affairs of religious groups, on January 8-10, the U.S Special Envoy for Sudan, the Charge d’Affaires, and PM Hamdok visited Kauda, a town located in South Kordofan State that was controlled by the rebel SPLM-N. During the visit, the U.S. Special Envoy and the Charge d’Affaires spoke with PM Hamdok about the separation of religion and state in an effort to broker peace in the rebel-held area.

Throughout the year, embassy officials engaged with religious leaders and civil society organizations to discuss legislation enacted under the CTLG and seek their views on actions needed to expand religious freedom. In meetings, embassy officials stressed the importance of identifying measures to collectively advance religious tolerance among the various religious groups. The Charge and embassy officials attended civil society and MRA hosted roundtables in October.

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, utilized social media outlets to applaud the government’s actions to repeal laws hindering religious freedom and to create an inclusive society.

On December 2, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Sudan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Sudan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 1999 to 2018 and was moved to the Special Watch List in 2019.

Tanzania

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Twenty-two members of the Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propagation (UAMSHO), an Islamist group advocating for Zanzibar’s full autonomy, remained in custody on the mainland following their arrest in 2013 on terrorism charges.

According to some religious organizations, various governmental bodies, including the National Electoral Commission, enforced measures that served to exclude religious groups or societies from any perceived political role, ostensibly to enforce 2019 changes related to the organizational status and operational scope of religious societies,. Human rights groups said that this led to the exclusion of religious organizations, including the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, from organizing domestic election observation missions or from providing civic and voter education, which they said had been a longstanding and positive role played by many religious organizations.

On July 9, the Council of Imams issued a document calling for the government to ensure independent and fair elections, legislative reform, and equality for Muslims. On July 11, police arrested Sheikh Issa Ponda, secretary of the Council of Imams, at his office in Dar es Salaam. Media reported that he was “allegedly circulating a document containing elements of incitement and breach of peace towards the 2020 general election.” Police detained Ponda for nine days, then released him on bail. Ponda also reported that some Muslims believed the government was using the 2002 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTW) to unjustly attack, kill, or imprison Muslims.

There were additional instances where, according to some religious leaders, the government penalized prominent religious leaders for voicing views it deemed political. Examples included the government questioning the citizenship of several religious leaders when they expressed concerns about the actions of the government. Some religious leaders had their passports confiscated, according to observers.

The government used various public forums to emphasize that religious organizations should be self-funded and not rely on international donors. On August 23, President John Magufuli used a church event to raise money to build a mosque in Dodoma. According to media reports, this was a gesture to illustrate religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy met with religious leaders to discuss the October elections and how the religious community could help to maintain peace if needed in a potentially politically tense post-election environment.

A U.S.-funded program brought together youth and religious and community leaders to discuss local concerns around violent extremism related to religion and conflict. The program included town hall meetings and information sessions that addressed issues of religious intolerance. The embassy continued to provide small grants to youth groups in five districts to support an interfaith dialogue platform between Christians and Muslims. These activities continued without disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic, with appropriate precautions and mitigation efforts and in accordance with local regulations.

Togo

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to meet with religious leaders throughout the year. The MTA said it met with religious leaders prior to the February 22 presidential election to discuss their role in a peaceful election process. They also met to discuss the suspension and later partial resumption of religious services during the state of emergency imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to previous years, the government did not act on approximately 900 pending registration applications from religious groups or accept new applications. According to the DRA, however, the government did not prevent these groups from opening new religious institutions and carrying out their activities informally. The cabinet did not act on a bill submitted to it by the MTA in July 2019 and pending since 2018 detailing the process for opening places of worship and regulating hours of operation and levels of noise allowed during worship. According to the MTA, registrations and passage of the bill were delayed due to the presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government said it received 10 noise complaints, all prior to the April state of emergency restricting large gatherings.

The government imposed city-wide curfews in a few Muslim-majority cities due to outbreaks of COVID-19 linked to Eid-al-Adha celebrations in late July.

In response to concerns expressed by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in 2019 regarding increased police presence in Muslim majority areas of Lome, the Vice President of the Muslim Union said Muslims were not unfairly targeted by increased police presence and that it prevented vandalism and crime.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom and tolerance in meetings conducted virtually with government officials, in particular pending legislation and registration applications. Embassy officials also met with religious leaders and discussed their efforts to reduce tensions in communities and support peace and social cohesion, specifically regarding countering violent extremism related to religion. In September, the embassy issued a $250,000 grant to an NGO to strengthen resilience to violent extremism, with a strong focus on interreligious dialogue.

In January, the embassy supported a workshop that focused on introducing religious tolerance in lesson plans for 22 English teachers in Islamic schools in Kara, a city approximately 250 miles north of Lome.

Tunisia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to a June 9 Reuters report, Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that advocates for sexual minorities, fled to France after the government accused him in late 2019 of “incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions,” under the country’s counterterrorism law. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the basis for the accusation was that he re-shared a post on his Facebook page that critics considered disparaging of the Prophet Mohammed.

Media reported that police arrested two Indians, an Australian, and a Filipino in Sousse on February 18 for distributing flyers encouraging conversion to Christianity. According to media reports, the individuals were released after interrogation and subsequently deported.

On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui to six months in prison and a 2,000 dinar ($750) fine for a May 2 social media post, “Sura Corona,” that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse as a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. The prosecutor charged Chargui under the press code for “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence” and “offending authorized religions.” Civil society organizations criticized the court’s decision and called on authorities to overturn Chargui’s conviction. Chargui, who told the New York Times she identified as an atheist, announced through a Facebook post on August 8 that she had departed the country to seek asylum elsewhere. Her appeal remained under court review at year’s end.

On November 3, following an October attack in Nice, France, in which three persons were stabbed to death at a church, reportedly by a Tunisian, the government’s regional director of local affairs in Bizerte announced the suspension of a local imam who had posted a video on his Facebook page that incited others to kill anyone who offends the Prophet Muhammad. Police arrested and interrogated the imam. He remained in detention pending trial at year’s end. According to HRW, on November 12, a Tunis court sentenced blogger Wajdi Mahouechi to two years in prison for posting a video to Facebook on November 1 criticizing the public prosecutor’s handling of the imam’s case. The police arrested Mahouechi on November 2.

The Attalaki Association reported on incidents of hate speech, including by Rached Khiari, a member of parliament and former al-Karama Coalition member, who wrote on his Facebook page following the October 16 beheading of a teacher in France, “Whoever attacks the prophet must bear the consequences.” The Ministry of Interior initiated an investigation into the statement. A Counterterrorism Department spokesperson told media that Khiari’s action could be classified as a terrorism crime under the antiterrorism law.

On February 20, a member of the political bureau of the People’s Movement political party, Moncef Bouazizi, said during a media interview that the People’s Movement had been responsible for the removal of then Minister of Tourism Rene Trabelsi from the government. According to Bouazizi, the People’s Movement expressed its disapproval of Trabelsi, a Jew, to then Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh and accused Trabelsi of “normalizing with the Zionist entity” when he stated that Israelis of Tunisian origin should be allowed to return to the country for the Djerba pilgrimage.

Throughout the year, the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) closed several media outlets for not complying with HAICA licensing requirements. On December 7, demonstrators in Tunis protested the government’s closing of the privately owned Radio Quran al-Karim. The HAICA said it ordered the closure because the station lacked an operating license. According to press reports, protestors said the action was rooted in Islamophobia and called for the station to return to the air. On December 31, the HAICA imposed a 100,000 dinar ($37,300) fine because of the defamatory and insulting content of its programs, saying that the station’s programs contained “erroneous” information and broadcast live religious discussions inciting hatred and violence, threatening people’s safety, public security, and social peace.

Local Jewish sources reported that the Jewish community respected the government’s COVID-19 general lockdown measures from March to May and that in turn, the government provided the Jewish community with flexibility as needed. For example, after the community expressed concern that the prison authority’s COVID-19 measures prevented family members from delivering kosher meals to a Jewish pretrial detainee, the courts released the detainee on bail, enabling him to join his family for Passover.

As part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program for countering violent extremism, the Committee General for Prisons and Rehabilitation maintained an agreement with the MRA to permit vetted and trained imams to lead religious sessions with prisoners identified as extremists. As part of the ministry’s measures to counter violent extremism, prisons prohibited organized communal prayers but permitted individual detainees to have religious materials and to pray in their cells.

In contrast with the previous year, Baha’i leaders reported harassment by security force personnel during the year, including while preparing administrative documents at police stations.

On February 21, an administrative court ruled in favor of allowing the Baha’i Faith to establish an association. Baha’i Faith members reported that the General Prosecutor then presented an appeal to the court referencing a nonpublic fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti in 2016, which stated that Baha’i Faith members were apostates and infidels and therefore should not be permitted to practice their faith. The case remained ongoing at year’s end.

According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), because the Baha’i community remained unregistered, it could not have a bank account, organize money collection, or establish religious schools. The community petitioned the Minister of Local Affairs to establish a Baha’i cemetery but did not receive a reply by year’s end.

The government continued to publicly urge imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations that are chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the local mosque committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.

The government mandated the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although the niqab remained officially prohibited. In 2019, in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, the government prohibited the wearing of face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” The media subsequently reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab. Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. Sources reported that the circular remained valid during the year.

On March 5, President Kais Saied visited the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, accompanied by the then Ministers of Defense, Transport and Logistics, a former Minister of Tourism, and regional officials. In a speech, Saied said, “Tunisian Jews are equal with the rest of Tunisians in the eyes of the law, especially in terms of rights and duties.”

Christian citizens continued to state there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to discuss a church’s activities or theology publicly. Christian sources stated that security forces banned a religious conference scheduled for February in a hotel in the city of Hammamat for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 concerns.

Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate within set guidelines and provided security for their services. The government generally restricted public religious services or processions outside churches. On August 15, however, the Santa Costa Church held a celebration in the streets of the city of La Goulette in honor of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. A number of Muslim citizens, including the Mayor of La Goulette, Amal El Imam, and regional Ministry of Interior representative Fathi Hakami, attended the celebration.

Christian citizens reported the government continued to deny them the right to establish a legal entity or association that would give them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. However, the Christian community again did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. Christian cemeteries existed for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, continued to need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request such permission due to what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse. In August, the Attalaki Association reported that local officials refused to bury the body of a child of a Christian father in an Islamic cemetery because the cemetery was designated for use by Muslims only. After the family contacted the mayor of Tunis, the cemetery administration authorized the child’s burial. The Attalaki Association reported continued positive exchanges with members of parliament representing the Nahda political party, Tahya Tounes political party, the Reform bloc in Parliament, and the Union for Religious Affairs to discuss efforts to combat hate speech based on religion and to license a Christian cemetery and church.

On May 19, the mayor of al-Kram established the country’s first government-sponsored zakat fund (an Islamic religious duty to donate a portion of one’s income to the poor) since independence in 1956. Defenders of the country’s officially secular nature strongly criticized the creation of the fund, stating that religious initiatives should not replace the government’s civic duty and that it was contrary to the constitution. Civil society groups voiced concerns that the fund could benefit Islamist political groups at the expense of the state.

Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis but not those located in other cities, including Sousse and El-Kef.

In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.

Representatives from the Jewish community reported that in early November, as a follow-up to applications first filed in 2019, they submitted legal documents related to establishing a Jewish community association to the MRA and to the Minister, who had vowed to support the request. The Jewish community initiated the applications to establish associations to better advocate with the government on behalf of Jewish community interests and serve as an organizing body for the Jewish communities in Gabes, Medenine, and Tunis.

On May 19, the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced the ministry would include the synagogue of Tataouine in its national heritage registry and would place it under protection to prevent further degradation of the building.

On November 15, during a visit to Doha, President Saied and the Qatari Emir proposed the holding of a “Western-Islamic conference…aimed at achieving greater understanding.” The President said that the conference would have the aim of avoiding confusion that Westerners might experience in distinguishing between “Muslims …[and] those extremists who claim to be Muslims,” and that there was a “need to differentiate between Islam and its true purposes and terrorism, which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.”

In December, the government reported that 160 persons converted to Islam during the year.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy officials continued to maintain regular contact with government officials, including in the MRA, the Office of the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, difficulties facing Baha’i and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths.

Embassy officials maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions by the government or threats from the community. The embassy supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and counter violent extremism related to religion, including informal youth-led conversation groups to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with scout troops to learn how to recognize and combat signs of religious radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering religious radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.

Uganda

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On June 1, local media reported that between May 18 and May 29, unidentified plainclothes security officers arrested six Muslim clerics in Masaka District. According to local media, the security officers carried out a search of the detainees’ houses and confiscated documents and a motorcycle. According to local media, the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces and the UPF denied knowledge of the arrest. On July 7, local media reported the CMI arrested the six on suspicion that they ran a cell on behalf of the Allied Democratic Front, an armed Islamist insurgent group originating in the country but operating primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the 1990s. The six remained in custody without trial at year’s end.

On July 5, UPF officers, assisted by Local Defence Unit members, surrounded the Masjid Noor mosque in Kampala, evicted its leadership, and arrested seven clerics. The UPF stated it had deployed its officers to “provide security for the smooth handover and takeover of the properties by the rightful owners.” The UPF said it arrested the seven on accusations of obstruction of justice and corruption. The UPF evicted the Salafi Tabliq leaders who had run the mosque since 2012 and returned it to the UMSC. On July 10, the UMSC said it repossessed the mosque after the Tabliq used the mosque to spread hate speech and defaulted on rent payments for the mosque. On July 12, local media reported the UPF released the seven clerics in compliance with a court order.

On March 28, the UPF arrested evangelical Christian minister Augustine Yiga for spreading “misleading information about the COVID-19 pandemic.” On March 27, Yiga appeared on a program on his church’s television station, ABS TV, and said COVID-19 did not exist in the country, contrary to the government’s public health messaging. On March 30, the government charged Yiga with “an act likely to spread infection of disease,” and the court remanded him to Kitalya Prison. On May 5, the court granted Yiga bail and prohibited him from making any public comments about COVID-19. According to local media, Yiga died of natural causes before the case could proceed.

On March 18, the government announced restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, which included cancellation of all public meetings, including religious gatherings, and closure of all schools. Some evangelical Protestant ministers said the government’s suspension of all religious gatherings, as part of measures to combat COVID-19, infringed on their religious freedom. On September 20, the government lifted the suspension on religious gatherings but limited attendance to 70 persons. On June 19, lawyers associated with Zoe Ministries in Kampala said the government did not consult religious organizations regarding the suspension, which they said amounted to religious persecution. President Yoweri Museveni, however, said the government consulted with the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, a body representing the largest faiths in the country, before making the announcement. The Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum (UMYDF) said the government’s actions to block Muslims from collecting and distributing food charity during Ramadan, as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, violated their religious freedom. The UMYDF said the government directed all donations be deposited with government’s National COVID-19 Relief Taskforce, which would then distribute the donations to Muslims in a manner that would not expose the public to COVID-19. According to UMYDF, the taskforce failed to deliver relief to Muslim communities, which it said was because it did not know the location of the communities in need.

In October, BAFU, an umbrella body of evangelical churches, and UMYDF said the government discriminated against religious institutions as it relaxed COVID-19 restrictions. The government gradually relaxed restrictions on businesses and public transport starting on May 4 through August but maintained the restrictions on religious gatherings, foreign travel, and schools until September 20. BAFU national coordinator Bishop Herbert Buyondo said the government decision to reopen markets, shops, and restaurants “without giving people an opportunity to worship, was a violation of their religious freedom.”

In October, UMSC representatives stated the government continued to use the census figures as justification for discrimination against Muslims in appointments to public positions and in the deployment of social programs. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report sections of the Muslim population believed the government singled out Muslims as potential perpetrators of high-profile crimes and often arrested them without evidence. The NGOs reported that prolonged detention without trial, torture, and inhuman treatment of Muslim suspects by government security agencies continued.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives regularly discussed religious freedom issues with government officials. On April 30, the Charge d’Affaires held discussions with Prime Minister Rugunda and encouraged the country to enforce COVID-19 countermeasures without violating human rights.

Embassy representatives also regularly engaged with religious leaders on social, development, and civic engagement issues. Embassy representatives met with leaders of Sunni umbrella organizations, including UMSC and the Kibuli Order of the Supreme Mufti, Nadwa (a coalition of Muslim scholars), Scholars Forum, and Tabliq imams, to promote religious tolerance, education, and peacebuilding in the country. Embassy representatives engaged in outreach routinely in Kampala, and in October in the eastern region with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Muslim Clerics of Uganda Development Initiative, and the Islamic University of Uganda in Mbale.

On September 28, the embassy used social media to publicize continued U.S. engagement and cooperation with the Muslim community, which was generally positively received. To mark the start of Ramadan in April, the Charge d’Affaires used the embassy’s social media platforms to promote religious tolerance.

Zambia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Religious leaders stated clergy who expressed dissenting views on governance issues were monitored by the government and seen as being “aligned” with the political opposition; they were subsequently targeted and harassed for opposing some government policies. According to local media, on October 18, Chingola district commissioner Agness Tonga, accompanied by police officers, “stormed into” a Life Gospel Overseas Ministries during a church service presided over by Bishop Joseph Kazhila. According to media reports, prior to the event, Bishop Kazhila in his preaching criticized the tradition of the National Day of Prayer and Fasting, stating that the government had no moral right to force anyone to pray. Media reported Kazhila’s remarks angered the district commissioner who reportedly “ordered” him to preach the “power point message” authorized by the government; authorities arrested Kazhila after his refusal to comply.

Ruling party officials and sympathizers also politically attacked Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu, the retired Catholic Archbishop of Lusaka, for criticizing the government and opposing President Lungu’s third-term bid. In October, ruling party Patriotic Front secretary general Davies Mwila reportedly condemned Archbishop Mpundu for his criticism of the government, stating the ruling party would “treat him as a political opponent, not as a bishop.”

Religious leaders critical of the government reported a lack of protection for those holding peaceful dissenting assemblies, leaving protesters vulnerable to physical assault and disruption of their meetings by sympathizers of the ruling party. They also reported “excessive” government restrictions on their right to participate in public discussion of political or social issues, such as corruption involving government officials, arrest of opposition political leaders, and unfair application of the law against political opponents.

On March 13, the government promulgated public health regulations to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to human rights organizations, police at times acted with impunity and used excessive force on religious groups as they enforced COVID-19 public health regulations. In April, local media reported that police “brutally” assaulted a small group of church leaders from the Bread of Life International Church in Mkushi who had gathered in numbers that exceeded COVID-19 restrictions.

In October, the government seized Horizon Schools in Lusaka, associated with the Islamic Gulen movement and appointed a school chairperson and principal, according to local media. This action followed the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources’ September 24 notice of compulsory acquisition, in an exercise of executive power provided under the law. It was reported that the government intended to demolish the existing school building to pave the way for construction of a shopping mall. Horizon Education Trust, the schools’ proprietor, applied for judicial review in the Lusaka High Court to challenge the government’s decision to compulsorily acquire the school. The case remained pending at year’s end.

In October, the government further restricted the use of school facilities for religious purposes to limit outside activities in schools in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The restriction affected mainly small churches that lacked infrastructure for congregating. The affected churches protested against the measures, and the government announced in September it would provide land to churches that met in classrooms, enabling them to build permanent structures.

During the year, the government modified the proposed regulatory framework for churches and religious organizations that was approved in 2019, moving away from self-regulation to setting minimum standards. The new approach aimed to prescribe standards for every church or religious organization operating in the country, including codes of conduct and basic qualifications of religious leaders, to ensure financial accountability and minimum rules of behavior of clergy. Under the proposed framework, all religious organizations would be required to register through the Office of the Registrar of Societies in the Ministry of Home Affairs. The proposed framework required formal theological training for clergy and stipulated that only religious organizations affiliated with recognized umbrella bodies may be registered to operate in the country. It also required each church and umbrella body to have mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with registration requirements. The proposed framework remained under review at year’s end.

According to the MNGRA, the drive to regulate churches and religious organizations was necessitated by the proliferation of new churches and religious groups, the increasing frequency of self-ordination, insufficient transparency and accountability, lack of compliance by churches with the law, and abuse of power and authority by religious institutions. Religious leaders, however, continued to express concern regarding the regulatory framework. On June 12, for example, the state-run Times of Zambia reported that several religious leaders criticized the MNGRA’s proposed framework to set minimum standards as not being inclusive and said that the framework would likely undermine the prominent role that some church umbrella bodies played in drawing the government’s attention to social and governance issues. Religious leaders said that by regulating the internal affairs of churches and religious groups, the government would not only undermine religious freedom but would usurp their exclusive jurisdiction on matters of faith and restrict their ability to effectively hold political leaders accountable on governance and social issues.

Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic mother bodies, along with leaders of other religious groups, continued to oppose the existence of the MNGRA, particularly for its perceived mandate to “actualize” the declaration of the country as a Christian nation. For example, Islamic Supreme Council of Zambia (ISCZ) and Zambia Messianic Fellowship leaders stated that the ministry’s mandate to protect all religions while at the same time promote Christianity was a conflict. The ISCZ stated the MNGRA was not inclusive of minority religious groups as it only represented Christianity, which was not compatible with its own name. “It is [the Ministry of] National Guidance and Religious Affairs and not Ministry of Christian Affairs,” Sheikh Shaban Phiri, ISCZ secretary general, stated. Religious groups further said the MNGRA’s establishment compromised true separation of state and religion to the extent that the government was now positioned to determine what was religiously proper and what was not.

The government did not register any new mother bodies during the year. A moratorium imposed in 2019 on the registration of new churches and religious groups remained in force pending adoption of a new policy on minimum standards for churches and religious groups that would be included in the government’s framework for registering churches. At year’s end, the MNGRA stated it was still consulting on whether to make it mandatory for all religious groups to affiliate with a mother body.

During the year, there were no new legislative actions that more clearly specified the MNGRA’s role and responsibilities. Instead, the ministry continued to rely on other laws, such as the Societies Act and the Immigration and Deportation Act, to carry out its mandate. In October, the ministry held consultative meetings with the Christian church mother bodies and other religious groups on policy issues, such as the proposed minimum standards for clergy and financial accountability for churches and other religious groups.

In October, a government-proposed constitutional amendment that, among many other changes, included language emphasizing the country’s status as a Christian, rather than multireligious, nation failed to marshal the required two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for passage. Legal and religious observers, including the Muslim community and the ZCCB, expressed their belief that the proposed amendments could have fueled religious intolerance.

Religious leaders stated the clearance procedures for foreign clergy entering the country remained laborious and bureaucratic, impeding some activities of religious groups. According to the Zambia Messianic Fellowship, in September, after “reluctantly” extending her religious visa, the government informed a missionary conducting charitable work that to receive a further extension, she would have to apply for a business visa.

On October 18, the government held the sixth National Day of Prayer and Fasting. President Lungu and other senior government officials attended the event. The three main church mother bodies – the ZCCB, EFZ, and CCZ – did not attend, in opposition to the government’s involvement in religious affairs, but some of their members attended in their individual capacities. Clergy from Catholic and Protestant churches presided over the prayers.

Prominent religious groups continued to state the government should not be involved in building the 10,000-seat Interdenominational House of Prayer, which remained unfinished at year’s end. In 2015, President Lungu laid the foundation stone to start construction and appointed an advisory board in addition to fundraising and technical committees to spearhead the project. The project was being constructed by the Zambia Army and the Zambia National Service and would replace the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross as the “national cathedral” once completed.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials held virtual meetings with government officials, including from the MNGRA, to discuss topics related to religious freedom, such as government-sponsored religious observances, interfaith relations, and the use of religion as a tool in the political arena, as well as the role of the MNGRA in the regulation of churches and other religious groups.

The Charge d’Affaires met frequently with religious leaders, including a May 21 meeting with Muslim leaders on a wide range of issues that covered the impact of COVID-19 on religious freedom, government regulations, religious tolerance, governance, human rights, and the proposed constitutional amendments. On June 4, the Charge d’Affaires held a similar discussion with Christian leaders from the three main church mother bodies.

Zimbabwe

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Religious and civil society groups reported the government occasionally monitored public events, prayer rallies, church congregations, and religiously affiliated NGOs perceived to be critical of the government, but there were no reports of specific incidents or disruptions. NGOs continued to report that some religious officials who engaged in political discourse perceived as negative toward the government became targets of the security services. The government generally monitored public events with neither reported preference nor deference shown for religious gatherings. Religious activities and events remained free from MOPA restrictions, but observers stated the government continued to categorize some public gatherings as political, including religious gatherings such as prayer vigils and memorial services, perceived to be critical of the ruling party.

Multiple church organizations, including the Churches Convergence on Peace, ZCC, and ZCBC, released letters appealing for tolerance, national unity, peace, reconciliation, healing, and stability while calling on the government to uphold the constitution and protect citizens’ political rights. In August, the ZCBC issued a pastoral letter calling on the government to build peace, eradicate corruption, and strive for stability and good governance. The letter called the “crackdown on dissent” “unprecedented” by a government that “automatically labels anyone thinking differently as an enemy of the country.” Information Minister Mutsvangwa responded by calling the ZCBC “evil-minded…reckless regime-change agents” who were seeking to incite the public to rise against the government and “sow seeds of internecine strife as a prelude to civil war.” Several sources, including the Vatican, ZCC, Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and others defended ZCBC President Archbishop Robert Ndlovu while local commentators criticized the government for singling out the Archbishop, of Ndebele ethnicity, as an attempt to divide the country along tribal lines.

Most official state and school gatherings and functions continued to include nondenominational Christian prayers, as did political party gatherings. In courts and when government officials entered office, individuals often swore on the Bible.

The government continued to enforce a 2018 ban on all radio and state-run television programs advertising prophets and traditional healing, for example selling “tickets to heaven” or a traditional cure for HIV/AIDS.

Churches reported working with Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services to help improve living conditions in prison facilities, but the government significantly limited the services they could provide due to COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

To underscore the importance of religious tolerance, the Ambassador met with leaders of the country’s main Apostolic coalitions throughout the year, the Apostolic Nuncio in March, and ZCC leadership in August. Embassy officials met with Catholic, evangelical, and other Protestant, Apostolic, and Muslim religious leaders and faith-based NGOs to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country and the role of religious leaders in political reconciliation. These meetings took place in person from January through March and virtually thereafter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Embassy representatives maintained regular contact with religious leaders via email, telephone, and social messaging applications. The embassy’s social media platforms promoted religious freedom, celebrated major religious holidays, and encouraged respectful engagement on religious topics.