Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.1 million (July 2017 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Shia and Sunni Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. Shia leaders estimate Shia make up approximately 20-25 percent of the population, while Sunni leaders state the Shia constitute 10 percent.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 1,300 individuals in the country. The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 600 adherents nationwide. Reliable estimates of the Bahai and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Bahai Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

There is no definition of apostasy in the criminal code. Apostasy falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates unless they repent. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of majority for citizens is 18, except it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts and subject to the same punishment.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of religious law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Bahai Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Bahai practitioners are labeled infidels.

Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a shura or council) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a charter consistent with domestic laws as well as a central office. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras or councils may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole. Both groups and associations may register with the MOJ. According to the MOJ database, 2,215 Sunni and Shia organizations performing religious, charitable, and social functions are registered, while the Sikh and Hindu National Shura has one council registered with the MOJ and another with the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs because of the council’s location.

The law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral wellbeing of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA), a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country. The law also obligates RTA to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

The criminal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, those who destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or those who destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of six months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 afghanis (AFN) to 60,000 AFN ($430 to $870).

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam, but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education (MOE).

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil code address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The criminal code punishes “crimes against religions,” which include verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion. It specifies a person who attacks a follower of any religion shall be sentenced to a prison term of six months to one year. The issue of blasphemy is covered under sharia, under which the authorities consider it a capital crime.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the president and vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law, pursuant to a 2016 presidential decree, mandates an added seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismailis.

According to the MOJ’s database, the country is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights based on a 1983 presidential decree, but the parliament has not yet ratified the country’s signature.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: Converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society; however, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead settled disputes through community councils or mediation. Representatives of minority religious groups reported a continued failure by the courts to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. On June 25, the president invited Sikh and Hindu leaders to the presidential palace for a dialogue on the importance of these minority religious communities and their long-standing presence and valuable contributions to the country. Although some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, Shia leaders continued to assert the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to assert, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. Observers stated that these debates were often about ethnicity as much as religion.

As in the previous three years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Bahais continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered to be converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime. There was no new information available about an individual who had been given a 20-year prison sentence for blasphemy in 2013.

MOHRA remained responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group. It charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims reported they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.

MOHRA reported 4,589 mullahs were registered at year’s end who worked directly for MOHRA, of approximately 160,000 mullahs in the country. These mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 10,000 AFN ($140) from the government. Mullahs applying to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques continued to have to hold at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree or equivalent verified by the Ministry of Higher Education was preferred. MOHRA reported approximately 5,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered, including the registration of an additional 700 mosques during the year. According to MOHRA, the ministry lacked the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about the new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law punishing conversion, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. They said their community members continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property. On June 25, the President Ashraf Ghani convened a meeting with Sikh and Hindu leaders for a dialogue about their situation and to recognize their long-standing presence in and contributions to the country.

Although the government had provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations.

MOHRA reported there were 4,093 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. There were 152 registered madrassahs in Kabul, with the remaining 3,941 spread throughout the provinces and other cities. While the government registered some madrassahs during the year, it did not report how many. More than 370,000 students were enrolled in the madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to the latest available estimate.

The registration process for madrassahs continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dorms if students lived on campus. MOHRA continued to register madrassahs co-located with mosques, while the MOE continued to register madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.

MOHRA could not estimate the number of unregistered madrassahs but stated it estimated registered madrassahs “far outnumbered” unregistered madrassahs. The MOE was authorized to close unregistered madrassahs, but ministry officials again said it remained nearly impossible to close any due to local sensitivities. According to ministry officials, no madrassahs were closed during the year due to the potential for negative societal repercussions. Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. A total of 1,200 public and 200 private madrassahs were registered with the MOE.

According to government authorities, the government continued to monitor financial assistance to madrassahs by requiring registered madrassahs to route private or international donations through the MOE. The authorities said the MOE seldom imposed a ban on a madrassah for failing to comply with this requirement. They also said the continuing tendency of donors to make cash donations directly to the madrassahs made it difficult for the government to track funds coming from private sources or abroad. Despite this, the government’s efforts to solicit donations from other Muslim countries and from private individuals continued. The MOE reportedly continued to require the accreditation of independent madrassahs and disclosure of their funding sources.

The MOE’s Department of Islamic Education continued to provide a standardized curriculum for registered madrassahs. This curriculum required 60 percent of the subjects taught in madrassahs to be religious in nature, while the other 40 percent consisted of mathematics, history, geography, and Dari literature.

A government-sponsored school for Sikh children continued to operate in Kabul. It received proportionate funding from the government to cover staff salaries, books, and maintenance. The MOE also provided the curriculum for the Sikh school, except for religious studies. The community appointed a teacher for religious studies, while the MOE paid the teacher’s salary.

A privately funded Sikh school continued to operate in Jalalabad with funding from the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. Sikh children continued to attend private international schools; Hindu children often attended Sikh schools.

Ahmadi Muslims reported they sent their children to public schools but kept their children’s religious affiliation secret. There were no Christian schools in the country.

Legal sources said the courts continued to rely on statutory law in both civil and criminal cases. Members of minority religious groups continued to report instances, however, when the courts used Hanafi jurisprudence, even when such law conflicted with the country’s international human rights commitments.

The president continued to take advice on Islamic legal matters from the Ulema Council, a group of senior Sunni and Shia scholars, imams, and Muslim jurists. The council met with the president every two months, discussing topics such as support for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces and peace negotiations with insurgent groups. The Ulema Council also continued to provide advice on the formulation of new legislation and the implementation of existing law to the parliament and ministries.

Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments, although, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah made numerous speeches during the year supporting religious tolerance.

Minority religious groups reported the courts still did not apply the protections provided to those groups by the law and the courts denied non-Muslims the access to the courts or other legal redress as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights. According to media reports and representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, some members of these communities were told they did not have equal rights because they were “Indians,” not Afghans, even when they were citizens of the country. Members of minority religious communities reported the state, including the courts, treated all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims remained uncodified. They said the result was non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.

Sikhs and Hindus continued to report their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to report discrimination, including long delays to resolve cases in the judicial system. The illegal appropriation of Sikh properties remained the most common judicial problem.

There continued to be a small number of Sikhs and Hindus serving in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament.

Although Shia Muslims held senior positions in government, they continued to state the number of their appointments to government administrative bodies was not proportionate to the percentage of Shia they estimated to compose the country’s population. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to assert, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. Other non-Shia observers said the issue of employment of Shia was more related to their largely Hazara ethnicity than religion.

Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Moderation Center of Afghanistan, a government-funded NGO, continued to promote what the government viewed as a moderate interpretation of Islam. Educational exchanges organized by the center continued to send Shia and Sunni clerics to Kuwait for training, and then appoint them to positions as teachers in various provinces to train other clerics. The center distributed 5,000 books addressing Islamic subjects, extremism, and the current conflict in the country. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation.

The ONSC’s work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism continued. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. The ONSC also continued to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to formulate the strategy through an interministerial working group.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by the ISKP, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups targeted specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Hazara Shia. Media reported the ISKP said its attacks on the country’s Shia population were justified because Shia fighters had joined militias fighting the ISKP in Syria and Iraq. According to media reports, the ISKP also accused the country’s Shia of being progovernment and targeted security and military personnel worshipping in mosques. According to UNAMA’s Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, the combined use of suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and non-suicide IEDs by “Anti-Government Elements” accounted for 4,151 civilian casualties (1,229 deaths and 2,922 injured), constituting 40 percent of all civilian casualties during the year.

UNAMA documented 499 civilian casualties (202 deaths and 297 injured) from 37 attacks, overwhelmingly committed by “Anti-Government Elements” against places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers during the year. These included targeted killings, abductions, and intimidation and represented a 32-percent increase in civilian casualties from such attacks, double the number of deaths and three times as many attacks as in 2016. According to UNAMA, the ISKP claimed responsibility for 18 of the incidents and 412 of the 499 casualties; the Taliban claimed 20 attacks, up from seven attacks in 2016.

UNAMA’s annual report found attacks against Shia places of worship and/or worshippers constituted 83 percent of all civilian casualties from attacks against places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. Nearly one-third of the ISKP attacks targeted Shia Muslims, including six attacks directed at Shia places of worship.

Attacks on Shia mosques for which the ISKP claimed responsibility included: a June 15 suicide bomb attack on a Shia mosque in western Kabul that killed five persons; an August 1 attack by two suicide bombers on a Shia mosque in Herat that killed 29 worshippers and injured 64; an August 25 attack by gunmen and a suicide bomber on a Shia mosque in western Kabul that killed 40 and wounded 100; and an October 20 ISKP suicide bombing in which the attacker lobbed a grenade into the women’s section and detonated his suicide vest in the second row of worshippers at a Shia mosque in Kabul that killed 57 persons and injured another 55.

Attacks on Shia mosques for which no group claimed responsibility included a January 1 bomb attack on a Shia mosque in Herat that wounded six worshippers, and a June 6 blast outside the Great Mosque of Herat, a Shia mosque opened in 1446, which killed eight individuals and wounded 10.

On September 29, a suicide bomber killed seven persons and wounded 37 in a Kabul Shia mosque two days before Ashura.

The media reported complaints by members of the Shia community concerning a continued lack of protection from the government. In response to these attacks, the Ministry of Interior announced increased security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under the authority of the police, to provide extra security for Ashura. During the Ashura processions, however, there were no violent incidents reported – a sharp contrast from recent years.

According to media reports, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. On June 10, Taliban gunmen entered a Sunni mosque in the Gardez district of Paktiya Province and killed three worshippers. On August 11, gunmen killed three worshippers in a Takhar Province Sunni mosque. Rival factions, not linked to the Taliban or the ISKP, were reportedly vying to lead prayers, which led to the shootings.

ISKP attacks targeting Shia continued to extend outside of mosques. On September 28, three individuals were killed, including two policemen, and 16 were injured in a blast at a cinema in the Chendawol area of Kabul with a significant Shia population, according to a local media report. A Ministry of Interior spokesman said the blast was triggered by a magnetic bomb attached to a police vehicle. ISIS media said the attack was directed against a Shia assembly hall in the area. On December 21, ISKP detonated a remote controlled IED outside a library in a predominantly Shia neighborhood, killing four and injuring 10. On December 28, a suspected ISKP suicide bomber attacked the Afghan Voice news agency and a Shia cultural center in Kabul, killing more than 40 persons and injuring at least 80.

Attacks continued against Shia villages and civilian properties. On January 6, unidentified gunmen stopped a bus carrying Shia coal miners in Baghlan Province and killed at least nine passengers. On August 6, gunmen linked to the Taliban and the ISKP killed at least 50 civilians, including women and children, in a Shia village in Sar-e Pul Province.

The Taliban continued to assassinate and threaten religious leaders with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. On March 22, suspected Taliban gunmen assassinated an imam and former provincial council member in Laghman Province. On May 7, a cleric and media adviser to the Kandahar government was shot and killed, reportedly for calling the Taliban jihad “illegitimate.” On May 9, the Parwan Provincial Ulema chief, who had been publicly critical of the Taliban, was killed by an IED, along with six children studying at his school; the Taliban claimed responsibility. On May 22, suspected Taliban gunmen shot and killed the deputy head of the Logar Ulema council while he was walking to his mosque, and on May 28, suspected Taliban gunmen shot and killed a provincial Ulema council member in Paktika Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassinations of the deputy director of Islamic education in Kapisa Province on July 1 and of a progovernment cleric in Nangarhar Province on July 15. During the year, UNAMA documented 26 incidents of killings targeting religious scholars and leaders, compared with eight in 2016.

In addition to the targeting of religious worshippers and leaders, from January 1, 2016, to November 7, 2017, UNAMA documented 25 terrorist attacks targeting individuals deemed to be military targets while they were inside places of worship. Most of those targeted in places of worship were civilians suspected of supporting the government, including tribal elders, judicial officials, civilian government workers, and teachers worshipping inside a mosque. According to UNAMA, on November 27, the Taliban shot and killed the imam of a mosque in Nangarhar Province, accusing him of supporting the government. On July 23, the ISKP killed a local imam in Sar-e Pul Province for committing “sorcery.” The imam had been offering traditional Afghan talismans to worshippers.

In several cases, it was not certain who was responsible for the attacks on religious officials. For example, on March 17, the chief of Hajj and Religious Affairs in Nangarhar Province survived a suicide bombing in which his brother was killed. In September unknown assailants riding motorcycles killed the head of the provincial ulema in the Hesa Awal Kohistan District area of Kapisa Province. On October 12, unidentified gunmen on motorcycles killed an imam outside his mosque in Nangarhar Province.

There were reports of continued Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to the director of madrassahs at MOHRA, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for Afghan National Security Forces and other government employees. MOHRA also reported difficulty in staffing registered mosques in insecure areas because of Taliban threats.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban and the ISKP monitoring the social habits of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their respective interpretations of Islamic law. There were continued reports of the Taliban and the ISKP taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer incidents of harassment than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

There were several media reports of local religious leaders forcing young men to fast during Ramadan. In one instance, a mullah who worked for Balkh Province’s Prevention of Vice Commission shaved the head of a young man to shame him for not fasting.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, reported harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, the women said, they continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some urban areas, including Kabul. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public. MOHRA and the National Ulema Council both continued to state there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.

Ahmadi Muslims reported harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of being persecuted. Ahmadis maintained a place of worship but kept it unmarked, without minarets or other adornments identifying it as an Ahmadi Muslim community mosque.

Christian representatives reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. The representatives said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and 2 mandus (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Following past seizures of their places of worship by residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktya, and other provinces, the Hindu community had presented the list of its places of worship to MOHRA in an effort to stop further seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said these problems remained unresolved at year’s end.

According to the leader of the Sikh community, a new mosque next to a Sikh temple deliberately aimed its loudspeakers at the temple to harass non-Muslim worshippers.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and two schools in Kabul remained operational.

Sikh leaders reported the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration remained a lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased.

Observers reported societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there were reports of discrimination in some localities, especially in regard to employment opportunities. There were also instances, however, where Sunnis and Shia came together for prayer or to donate blood in the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

Both Shia and Sunni leaders condemned particular secular events as contrary to Islam. In July Shia religious leaders in Bamyan declared a local two-day festival celebrating traditional Afghan music as being against Islamic values, forbidding participation or attendance. Both Sunni and Shia religious scholars in mid-August condemned the planned performance of a female Afghan pop singer to celebrate Independence Day as being against Islamic values. The concert’s venue was changed to a lower-profile location.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained inactive, and a nearby Jewish cemetery was utilized as an unofficial dump.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul.

The media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.

There were reports many mullahs, especially those in unregistered mosques, continued to support the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.

NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.


Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 39 million (July 2017 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkmen, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population. Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkmen the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR. The Christian population has declined over the past 15 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 3,000 evangelical Christians in the IKR.

Yezidi leaders report most of the 600,000-750,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, with more than 350,000 still living in camps in the IKR. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with small pockets in the IKR and Baghdad. Bahai leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups. The Shabaks include about 350,000-400,000 persons, two-thirds to three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of around 7,000. According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000-150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain; others live in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala, Erbil, and Karbala. The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 430 Jewish families reside in the IKR. According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are nine adult members of the local Jewish community.

Due to four years of intensive combat, 5.8 million civilians remained displaced within the country. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), by year’s end 3.3 million individuals had returned home, leaving 2.5 million IDPs within the country. Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the IOM, as of November, approximately 67 percent of the IDP population is Arab Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 9 percent Turkmen Shia, 6 percent Kurdish Sunni, 3 percent Arab Shia, 3 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christians, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkmen Sunni, Shabak Sunni, or Kurdish Shia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundation source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also guarantees the freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists. According to the penal code, Jews are not allowed to hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military. The law prohibits the practice of the Bahai Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion, and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and require administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is born as a result of rape.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Latin-Dominican Rite, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and to perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. According to the Yezidi-affiliated NGO Yazda, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.

There are three diwans (chambers) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

Outside of the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. The law allows punishment for anyone practicing the Bahai Faith with 10 years’ imprisonment. For unrecognized religious groups other than Bahai – e.g., Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Kaka’i (Yarsani) – the law does not specify penalties for practicing; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA). To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation of the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam. Eight faiths are registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidi, Judaism, Bahai, Sabean-Mandean, Zoroastrian, and Kaka’i.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered nine evangelical Protestant churches: Rasolia Church, Baptist Church, Kurd-Zaman Church, United Evangelical Church, Mushikha Evangelical Church, Ashti Evangelical Church, International Church, al-Nahda Church, and Evangelical Free Church.

In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by church leaders, consisting of representatives from Christian churches, including six evangelical Protestant churches. Registration with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders provides Christian churches and leaders with access to the KRG MERA and to the KRG’s Christian endowment.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or 300 Iraqi dinars (IQD) (25 cents) for such crimes.

By law the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, organizes a lottery process to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. According to the law, the commission offers 3.5 million IQD ($3,000) for Hajj travel by land, and 4.2 million IQD ($3,600) for travel by air.

In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution guarantees minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkmen official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution guarantees citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and endowments. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between Muslims, and the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

National identity cards denote the bearer’s religion. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, and Muslim; there is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, nor a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, or Christian. Without an official identity card, non-Muslims and those who convert to faiths other than Islam may not register their marriages, enroll their children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but conversion by a Muslim to another religion is forbidden by law.

The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Bahai, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups and forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

Of the 329 seats in the national Council of Representatives, the law reserves nine seats for members of minority communities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament reserves 11 of its 111 seats for minorities: five for Christians, five for Turkmen, and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary school, except in the IKR. Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Summary paragraph: There were continued reports that ISF and Shia militia killed ISIS detainees and their alleged collaborators. NGOs reported the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without timely access to due process. International human rights groups said the government still failed to investigate and prosecute ethnosectarian crimes, including those carried out by armed groups in areas liberated from ISIS. Sunni Arabs continued to report some government officials used sectarian profiling in arrests and detentions and used religion as a determining factor in employment decisions. Some Yezidi and Christian leaders reported continued occurrences of harassment and abuse by the KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces. According to various NGOs, the Asayish-imposed security permitting and check point requirements impeded the movement of Yezidis to and from the Sinjar area, resulting in a de facto blockade. Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF and Peshmerga units that impeded movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Media and government officials reported the Peshmerga and PMF prevented displaced Sunni Arabs, Yezidis, Turkmen, and others from returning to their homes in some areas liberated from ISIS. Community leaders continued to state that forced conversion was the de facto result of the national identity card law, mandating the listing of children with only one Muslim parent as Muslim, even if that child was born as a result of rape. Representatives of minority religious communities continued to report that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

There were continued reports that ISF, including the PMF and Peshmerga, and Shia militia killed Sunni detainees. International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without timely access to due process. For example, Arab residents stated that Shia Turkmen PMF units arrested, kidnapped, or killed Sunni Turkmen and Arabs in Tal Afar after the ISF liberated the city from ISIS rule in August. None of those responsible within PMF units were brought to justice by year’s end.

Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves in order to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services. A Yezidi physician who provided psychosocial support services to numerous Yezidi women and children who were survivors of ISIS captivity for more than three years said more than 25 children of ISIS fathers and Yezidi mothers were relinquished by their rescued mothers and given to government authorities. All of those children were listed as Muslim. Christian leaders said, in some cases, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented, which would affect eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size. Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Representatives of minority religious communities said that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions. Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hanin Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and in Hamdanyah District. A Syriac Orthodox priest and the mayor of Hamdanyah attested to these repeated incidents. Arab Sunni leaders in Hamdanyah made similar allegations.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the portion of Ninewa Province controlled by the KRG or contested between the central government and the KRG. According to various NGOs, the Asayish imposed security permitting and checkpoint requirements that impeded the movement of Yezidis from Dohuk Province to and from the Sinjar area. Local sources reported the Asayish required clearance letters for anyone to cross the main bridge from Dohuk to Ninewa. PMF units in the area also threatened Yezidi returnees and impeded their movement. Christians reported harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, which impeded movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the 30th Brigade in Bartalla and the 50th Brigade in Bashiqa and Tel Kayf.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities. The groups participated in operations against ISIS as part of the PMF and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in June that 52 civilians (22 men, 20 women, and 10 children) from the Sunni Imteywit tribe disappeared while in the custody of Yezidi fighters from the Ezidkhan Brigades, associated with the PMF. Yezidi officials alleged that Imteywit and Jahaysh tribal members participated in ISIS atrocities against Yezidis in 2014, allegations the tribal members denied.

Some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers from their homes in several governorates. For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kata’ib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.

According to HRW, beginning in August authorities detained approximately 1,400 foreign women and children who surrendered with ISIS fighters and then transferred them to overcrowded and exposed temporary facilities without sufficient access to information or freedom of movement. Sites included Ninewa’s Hamam al-Alil humanitarian transit camp, a repurposed school in Tel Kayf, and a prison in the Rusafa district of Baghdad. Families suspected of ISIS affiliation in Salah al-Din’s al-Shahama camp were also denied freedom of movement. In September HRW reported that Shia PMF fighters affiliated with the Badr Organization detained and beat at least 100 male villagers and allegedly shot and killed four who self-identified as ISIS-affiliated during counter-ISIS operations outside Hawija.

In August Shabak Shia PMF attacked and assaulted a delegation from U.S. and Canadian churches during its visit to Christian areas recently liberated from ISIS in the Ninewa Plain, according to first-hand accounts from KRG officials and the delegation. The delegation was accompanied by Khalid Jamal Alber, Director of Christian Affairs of the KRG MERA and Peshmerga. The delegation was stopped by the Shabak Shia PMF at a checkpoint between Qaraqosh and Bartalla, two Christian towns. According to the report, the PMF insulted the delegation and gunfire was exchanged between the Peshmerga and the PMF. The Peshmerga and ISF rescued the delegation after the KRG’s Ministry of Interior and the Prime Minister’s Office intervened.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014, KRG authorities have funded the rescue from ISIS of more than 3,100 kidnapped Yezidis including 1,735 children, but more than 3,000 Yezidis captured by ISIS were still missing at year’s end. Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times, subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.

In May a Yezidi COR member reported the KRG had paid more than 5.8 billion IQD ($5 million) in ransom to secure the release of 3,004 Yezidis from ISIS, and more than 69.9 million IQD ($59,900) to middlemen to arrange safe passage to IKR-controlled areas.

Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, PMF militias in Sinjar, and the KRG’s imposition of security restrictions on movements into and out of the district continued to hinder the return of IDPs.

According to Yazda, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish and Muslim; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish and Muslim could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish and Muslim said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging. The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, such as evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties registering and proselytizing.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities.

Nabaz Ismael, a spokesperson of the KRG MERA, said MERA was planning to reduce the number of mosques where Friday sermons were delivered by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods. The spokesperson said the primary goal was to reduce the opportunities for extremist messages on Fridays and to prevent mosques from being used for political purposes.

Members of a Kurdish family from Ranya District in Sulimaniyah Governorate who had converted to evangelical Christianity in 2000 said they had to hide their religion and move frequently to avoid harassment, including from some of their own family members. Several members of the family were physically assaulted in incidents where their conversion to Christianity from Islam and their public distribution of Bibles were mentioned by the attackers. Family members said they received no assistance from local police, ostensibly because of their religion. The family moved to Turkey later in the year.

According to the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) – a group politically opposed to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party – the Peshmerga looted houses of Christians and public service infrastructure, including electric cables, water pumps, and water pipes in Bashiqa, Teleskof, and Batnaya. Also the ISF and PMF looted Christian property and public service infrastructure in Tel Kayf, Qaraqosh, and Bartalla during their liberation. Yezidi properties were looted in Bashiqa.

In July Christian civil society organizations reported the Assyrian Christian mayors in Al Qosh and Tel Kayf were replaced, reportedly due to corruption, with KDP members who also were Christian. At the direction of the mayor, security forces in Al Qosh arrested and threatened a group who publicly protested this decision. Christian groups stated this was part of a “Kurdization” of their towns.

In May Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf accused the ISF and PMF of destroying the second century CE tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi and filed a lawsuit against ISF and PMF commanders assigned to the area.

In July the KRG used official funds to open a new church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil for Christian IDPs on 1,000 square meters (10,800 square feet) of land donated by the KRG at a cost of 3.55 billion IQD ($3.9 million).

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported continued emigration. Estimates ranged from 10 to 22 Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, every day. Several Christian MPs said 20-22 Christian families were leaving the country daily. Some Yezidis and Christians formed their own protection militias. Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

According to the Jewish leader in Baghdad, in addition to the prohibition by law for Jews to hold government jobs or to serve in the military, there was widespread discrimination against Jews, causing the remaining Jews to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Bahai Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, but there continued to be no court challenges lodged to invalidate them, nor was legislation proposed to repeal them.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Bahais reported they continued to celebrate the festivals of Naw-Ruz and Ridvan in the IKR without government interference or intimidation. Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities. Followers of the Bahai and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays. Yezidis used Kurdish, one of the languages officially sanctioned by the constitution, in their worship services.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Syriac and Christian religious education was included in the curricula of at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1,500,000 IQD ($640 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. In October the Catholic University in Erbil, which opened in 2016 with KRG approval, received accreditation from the Ministry of Higher Education. The Catholic University remained open to students of all faiths.

While the government did not require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, some non-Muslim students continued to report pressure to do so from teachers and classmates. There were also continued reports that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom. Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for the Muslim students enrolled.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund the religion curriculum for Islam and Christian classes for students of those faiths. The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students; the curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies.

There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkmen, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in the disputed territories. For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG said it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil and for a Bahai religious and cultural center near Erbil. According to Bahai and Jewish representatives, MERA had “committed” to providing land for construction of community centers for those faiths. According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry’s recommendation for lands was passed to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels. Both recommendations remained pending at year’s end.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Iraqi Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM. Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority community leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority community leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to say they perceived a campaign of “revenge” by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunnis said they faced discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. According to Sunnis and local NGOs, the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for government employment, but did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.

Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against organizations providing humanitarian assistance to Yezidis. KRG authorities continued their blockade, started in April 2016, of goods into Sinjar District that, together with the volatile security situation in Sinjar, prevented the return of most Yezidi families. The KRG said the blockade was designed to constrain the PKK, which maintained an established presence in the Sinjar area. Security forces restricted items such as food, medicines, and farming supplies needed for local livelihoods. Yazda reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care. Since the October 16 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, though not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.

Sabean-Mandeans and Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as their inability to sell alcohol following the central government’s implementation of its alcohol ban in many parts of the country. Basrah, Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Muthanna Provinces continued to prohibit the import, sale, or transport of alcohol, although southern Iraqis were still allowed to legally consume and own alcohol. The KRG stated the ban would not be applied or enforced within the IKR. According to a Deutsche Welle article, minority communities considered the prohibition of alcohol an affront to religious freedom. In the article a Christian member of parliament stated, “The ban on alcohol is part of a war against religious minorities that aims to force them out of the country through exclusion, marginalization, and harassment policies.” According to a 2017 report sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Iraq’s ban on alcohol sales imposed “massive restrictions on Christians, Yazidis and Sabaean Mandaeans who sell spirits, since it affects their choice of livelihood and effectively leads to their financial ruin.”

The 2015 national identity card law, adopted by the COR, did not clarify whether the national identity card would continue to identify the bearer’s religion. The law continued to prevent Yezidis, many of whom consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic group as well as a religious group, and Shabaks from self-identifying with their religious and ethnic group and from official government recognition through official documentation.

According to HRW, since June KRG forces expelled at least four Yezidi families and threatened others because of their relatives’ participation in the IDF or the PMF. The KRG’s security forces, Asayish, returned the displaced families to Sinjar, where access to basic goods and services was very limited. According to the Yezidi International Human Rights Organization, at the end of July the number of Yezidi IDPs expelled to Sinjar in this manner was more than 150.

The KRG MERA Director General for Christians confirmed that a 2016 Dohuk court decision returning lands to Christians had not yet been implemented.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

On December 9, Prime Minister al-Abadi announced that after more than three years of combat, all territories were finally liberated from ISIS control. Throughout the year, however, ISIS continued to target victims on the basis of their religious identity, killing and subjecting persons of all faiths to violence, abductions, and intimidation. Media reported the security situation remained precarious as a result of ISIS occupation of territory and the escalation of fighting between ISIS and government forces in Ninewa and Kirkuk; although the Iraqi military and progovernment forces retook large amounts of territory in both provinces, clearance operations continued in some areas. In areas under its control, ISIS continued to commit individual and mass killings, and engaged in rape, kidnapping, and detention, including mass abductions and enslavement of women and girls from minority religious communities. ISIS also continued to engage in harassment, intimidation, robbery, and destruction of personal property and religious sites. ISIS continued to enforce strict rules on dress, behavior, and movement on the inhabitants who remained in areas it controlled, and severely punished infractions. Its fighters carried out execution-style public killings and other punishments, including after its “courts” condemned individuals for transgressing its rules or its interpretation of Islamic law. In areas not under ISIS control, it continued suicide bombings and VBIED attacks against civilians.

November UNAMI reports listed 3,112 civilian deaths and an additional 4,375 wounded as a result of acts of terrorism, violence, and armed conflict, mostly in Baghdad and in the northern and western provinces. ISIS claimed responsibility for the majority of these bombings. ISIS continued to target all religious minorities who refused to convert to Islam or who opposed the terrorist group. ISIS also targeted Sunni civilians who cooperated with the ISF. The country’s High Commission for Human Rights reported cases of ISIS killing women for not wearing an abaya. According to multiple reports from international NGOs and the local press, ISIS fighters continued to question members of detained groups to determine if they were Sunni, and then killed or abducted the non-Sunnis. According to the NGO Shlomo Organization for Documentation, ISIS abducted 150 Christians from the Batnaya, Qaraqosh, and Tel Kayf areas in 2014; their fate remained unclear at year’s end of the year. On February 15, the NGO reported the discovery of a mass grave west of Mosul containing 150 sets of human remains, possibly of Christian civilians from the area. At year’s end it was unclear if they were the remains of the Christians abducted in 2014.

Coordinated ISIS bomb attacks continued to target Shia neighborhoods, markets, mosques, and funeral processions, as well as Shia shrines. On May 30, a coordinated bomb attack on an ice cream parlor in the mainly Shia district of Karrada in Baghdad resulted in the deaths of more than 22 and injuries to more than 30. ISIS struck again hours later in the same district, detonating a bomb outside a government pension office, killing 14 and wounding 34. ISIS fighters continued their practice of claiming responsibility for these attacks via social media postings.

Large celebrations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala were violence-free, in part because of extensive security efforts.

According to the mayor of Sinjar and several local media outlets, on October 3, a mass grave was found in Sinjar containing remains of seven Yezidis killed by ISIS. Nearly 40 mass graves, believed to contain at least 1,000 bodies of Yezidis, were discovered in Sinjar. According to the KRG MERA, more than 3,000 Yezidis captured by ISIS were missing as of December.

The Yezidi Organization for Documentation again reported cases of rape, forced labor, forced marriage, forced religious conversion, material deprivation, and battery by ISIS.

According to the Iraqi-Kurdish news agency Rudaw, a 14-year-old Yezidi girl was kidnapped, tortured, and raped by members of ISIS. She reported during an interview in October after her rescue and return to Iraq that she was trafficked to Raqqa, Syria and forced to marry more than 13 ISIS fighters, consecutively.

NGOs reported ISIS continued to kidnap religious minorities for ransom. According to officials from the Turkmen Women’s Association, ISIS militants had kidnapped and held 500 Turkmen women and children from Tal Afar and Mosul since June 2014. A Shabak member of the Ninewa Provincial Council said ISIS held more than 250 Shabaks (most of whom are thought to be Shia) captive, and had executed three of them in October. UNAMI reported that between October 27 and the beginning of November, ISIS had relocated between 64 and 70 abducted Yezidi women from Aaliyah subdistrict of Tal Afar, Muhalabiya subdistrict of Mosul, and from Qayrawan subdistrict of Sinjar, to the Seventeen-Tamouz area in Mosul city. On November 4, 2016, ISIS reportedly brought an unspecified number of Yezidi women to Tal Afar and placed them in one of the schools. ISIS reportedly gave some of the women to its militants and sent others to Raqqa, Syria. After the liberation of Tal Afar and Raqqa, the whereabouts of these women remained unknown. ISIS forced children to serve as informants, checkpoint staff, and suicide bombers in areas under its control. Yazda reported ISIS continued to force Yezidi children into combat roles, including sending young boys to conduct suicide attacks against the ISF in Mosul.

According to religious leaders, killings, forced conversion, threats of violence, and intimidation continued to motivate many minorities to leave ISIS-controlled areas. Yezidi civil rights activists reported 360,000 Yezidis displaced to Dohuk Province in the IKR because of ISIS in 2014 largely remained in place due to the chaotic and confused security situation in Sinjar, where multiple state and nonstate armed groups controlled different areas. A limited number of Yezidi and Kaka’i IDPs returned to liberated areas of Ninewa.

Although the government declared victory over ISIS on December 9, ISIS continued to target non-Muslims and Muslims after that date, including through threats, restrictions, looting, and attacks on and seizures of religious sites. In Mosul, ISIS fighters reportedly continued to threaten with death local residents who did not convert to Islam. They also continued to punish those who failed to adhere to the group’s strict interpretation of sharia. ISIS continued to impose severe restrictions on women’s movement and dress, and enforcement patrols by ISIS forces were reportedly routine. ISIS fighters continued to attack mosques and other holy sites, including Sunni religious sites, rendering many of them unusable. They converted Christian churches into mosques, and looted and destroyed religious and cultural artifacts. The NGO Shlomo reported in 2014 that ISIS burned the majority of Christian houses in the areas of the Ninewa Plain that it occupied and accused the PMF and ISF of burning some Christian houses after the liberation of Christian cities from ISIS during the year. Shlomo also reported that 22 of 24 churches in the Ninewa Plain had been looted and destroyed. A Catholic social organization conducted a survey of several historically Christian towns and found 1,233 houses destroyed, 3,520 houses burned, and 8,217 partially damaged. The same organization reported that as of September 3, only 200 Christian families from a pre-ISIS population of 19,000 families had returned to the Ninewa Plain; Christian IDPs in several Ninewa Plain villages under PMF control reported the PMF imposed arbitrary checkpoints and detained and harassed civilians without legal authority to do so.

As coalition forces advanced towards Mosul in June, ISIS destroyed with explosives the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, which had dominated the skyline for eight centuries. In July authorities announced UNESCO had started the first stage of the restoration of the ancient city of Nimrud. The city was liberated from ISIS in November 2016, and is associated with the Assyrian civilization dating from the 13th century B.C. Additionally, in November UNESCO hosted a meeting with the minister of culture in attendance where an agreement was reached over the reconstruction of the fourth century Mar Behnam Monastery and the Mar Mattai Monastery, founded more than 1,600 years ago.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but few reports of religious violence in the IKR. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies. In regular Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses.

In January a 19-year-old Yezidi man, Namat Ismail, from Sinjar was found dead on a road in Sulaimaniya Province. His family said he had engaged in a dispute regarding religion with Muslim co-workers.

In February the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR filed a legal complaint against a Kurdish Islamic preacher, Mala Hasib, who reportedly issued a decree that all converts to Zoroastrianism had to be killed if they did not repent within days. In December an imam in Mosul delivered a nonsanctioned Friday sermon in which he decried Christians as infidels. Upon receiving complaints about the imam, the Sunni endowment removed him from the mosque.

In July in Baghdad unidentified gunmen fired upon and killed two Yezidis in their stores that sold alcoholic beverages. Yezidis and Christians, the main importers and sellers of alcohol, continued to be subject to harassment or attacks and were often forced to pay “protection” money to local authorities. Public reaction to a new national law banning the sale, import, and production of alcoholic beverages without any exception for liturgical uses was overwhelmingly negative. Opponents declared it violated language in the constitution that guaranteed the personal freedoms of minority groups.

Media reported criminal networks and some militia groups seized Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit, with relative impunity, despite pledges by the Prime Minister’s Office to open investigations into the seizures.

In December the St. Gorgis Chaldean Catholic Church rededicated its church in the town of Teleskof in the Ninewa Plain, which during its occupation ISIS had looted and burned after beheading members of the congregation on its altar.

Christians in the south and those in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain and Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.

Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their emigration.

Christians in the Ninewa Plain complained of Shabak business owners monopolizing the purchase of businesses to the detriment of Christians. They said these actions resulted in decreased job opportunities for Christians as the Shabak owners preferred to employ other Shabaks.

Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS. Some Sunni Muslims said Sunnis were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts from the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Ba’athists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

During the year, civil society and religious institutions held numerous conferences and workshops to promote religious tolerance. Hardwired, an NGO focused on religious freedom and reconciliation, held workshops in Erbil in July. Participants included Yezidis, Christians, and Muslims from Sinjar, Mosul, Hamdaniya, Sulaimaniyah, and Dohuk.

Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 8.3 million (July 2017 estimate), which includes residents and citizens living in the Golan Heights, as well as 201,000 Israelis in East Jerusalem (2014 estimate). According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other” – mostly persons, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures – as well as relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaites, Ahmadi Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes 134,000 out of 170,000 Christians, according to an April 3 report from the Knesset Research and Information Center. In addition, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, there are approximately 65,000 noncitizen Christian laborers in the country, mostly from Asia. There are also approximately 27,500 Christian “irregular” migrants from Eritrea and approximately 79,000 persons who overstayed tourist visas, mostly Christians from Ukraine and Georgia.

According to a poll by the local NGO Hiddush published in September, 59 percent of Jewish Israelis do not affiliate with any religious stream, 18 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 11 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent who chose “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 6 percent chose “Reform,” and 5 percent “Conservative.” There is also a community of approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews, as reported by the Messianic Jewish community.

Bedouin Muslim communities are concentrated in the Negev and many majority Druze, Christian, and Muslim communities are located in the Galilee region, some of which are homogenous and others a mix of these groups. There are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights, as well as an Alawite community in Ghajar.

According to government statistics, as of September 30, there were 86,870 legal foreign workers in the country, 74,212 Palestinian legal workers, and 18,555 undocumented workers (not including Palestinians). The government did not have information on the number of undocumented Palestinian workers. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers residing in the country. Foreign workers and migrants include Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

There is no constitution. The Basic Law describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which promises freedom of religion and conscience and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation.

According to Supreme Court rulings, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law.

The Chief Rabbinate retains the authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly consisting of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.

The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of male or female converts born after the parent’s conversion is complete. A law which took effect in May authorizes local rabbinates to determine who can use their mikvahs, potentially preventing Reform and Conservative Jews from using these facilities for conversions.

The law recognizes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze, and the Bahai Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Bahai communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: through a government declaration in response to a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council, or by petitioning the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for recognition. Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.

Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law. Some nonrecognized religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, receive a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhism and Scientology, do not. The government has stated that tax collection from nonrecognized religions is conducted by local authorities in accordance with the law, but has not stated why some nonrecognized religions receive a property tax exemption and others do not. While members of recognized religious communities only require approval for resident visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visas for members of nonrecognized religious communities also require MOI approval for stays longer than five years.

Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of three years’ imprisonment.

The law requires individuals to obtain a permit from the minister of interior or the prime minister for travel to “hostile” countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is the destination for those participating in the Hajj. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

Proselytizing is legal, although it is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.

The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities are provided further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites, and the Supreme Court has upheld this governmental authority.

The government provides separate public schools for Jewish children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children to attend regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of ultra-Orthodox religious schools, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.

The law provides the right for any Jew, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew are granted humanitarian status, but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews have no such route to immigration. Under the Law of Return those who completed an Orthodox conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. Immigration rights (including citizenship) under the Law of Return are also extended to those who complete private (non-Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in Israel. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of the religious beliefs with which they were raised, although the law considers those who as adults convert to other religious groups, including Messianic Judaism, to no longer be eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.

According to the law, persons are classified as “lacking religion” if they do not belong to one of the recognized religions as recorded in the National Registry. This includes approximately 322,000 immigrants and their children, primarily from the former Soviet Union, who gained Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, which applies the Orthodox definition of matrilineal descent.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to be buried in a civil ceremony, and requires that civil cemeteries be established in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.

Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A 1951 law on women’s equality explicitly excludes issues of marriage and divorce and appointments to religious positions.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence on those who conduct a Jewish wedding but fail to officially register it, i.e., conduct a Jewish wedding outside the Rabbinate’s authority.

Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases in which a husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce unless they convert to a different religion that authorizes divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of mixed-religion and same-sex couples.

Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under parallel jurisdiction of both religious courts and civil courts, and the first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it. A 2014 law requires spouses to meet with the Family Assistance Unit, a dispute-resolution body promoting settlement outside of courts, before filing such lawsuits in either court system.

In accordance with halacha, a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish-legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In February the Supreme Court upheld the authority of rabbinical courts to impose community-based punishments, such as avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The Supreme Court, however, rejected a prohibition on giving a get-refusing man a Jewish burial, since his death would already have terminated the marriage.

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male citizens who are Druze, and male citizens in the Circassian community (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century). On September 12, the Supreme Court struck down the existing arrangement to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and it set a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. Orthodox Jewish women and Arab Christian and Muslim citizens remain exempt from mandatory military service, although some voluntarily enlist.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion. Those who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law, as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to something else).

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups.

The law criminalizing statements demeaning or degrading or showing violence toward someone on the basis of race provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless intent to incite racism is proven.

There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. A 1951 law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes those who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, but not the workers, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions, however, for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. Following a series of political crises relating to train infrastructure work on Shabbat, the Knesset passed a law on December 25 instructing the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. Municipalities and regional councils may pass bylaws relating to commercial activity on Shabbat, with the consent of the minister of interior. Halachaprohibits the use of motorized vehicles on Shabbat. A 1991 law states that public transportation may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.

Government Practices

Summary paragraph: Three Muslim citizens shot and killed two Israeli police officers, both of whom were Druze, near the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14, and then escaped to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif where other Israeli police officers shot and killed them. On August 15, Israeli police arrested the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization. On June 25, following ultra-Orthodox parties’ objections to elements of a January 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements, the cabinet voted to “freeze” the agreement. Media reported that on September 19, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed support for greater religious pluralism for Jews in Israel, but stated that he “won’t solve” the disparity between halacha-based laws and public practice by the non-Orthodox majority which largely eschews them. Those who self-identify but are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others without Jewish matrilineage, remained prohibited from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country, although some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis officiated at these ceremonies outside of the Rabbinate (i.e., they did not register it officially). The government maintained its policy not to accept applications for official recognition by evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses, while stating that members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion. Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools remained significantly fewer than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools.

Three Muslim citizens shot and killed two Israeli police officers, both of whom were Druze, near the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14. The attackers escaped to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, where other Israeli police officers shot and killed them. On September 17, authorities arrested two Arab citizens, including a 16-year-old, on suspicion of planning another terrorist attack at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

On August 15, Israeli police arrested the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization. A statement from the police characterized several speeches Salah made as inflammatory, reportedly including a speech at the funeral of the three terrorists who killed two policemen at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14. In that speech, Salah quoted a verse from the Quran regarding “those who have been killed in the cause of Allah.”

MK Ahmad Tibi compared Salah’s statements with those of rabbis such as Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, which Tibi said “incite to murder and incite to killing Arabs,” with no response from the police. A petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center to initiate disciplinary hearings against Eliyahu was pending as of September 26. On June 14, authorities indicted Rabbi Yosef Elitzur for incitement to violence, based on two articles he published in 2013.

Some religious minority groups complained of police apathy when investigating attacks against them. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated authorities had indicted few suspects despite 35 attacks on religious sites in the country since 2010.

At the end of the year there were multiple versions of a draft basic law to define the country as a Jewish state. Proponents said such a law was needed because the Basic Law on Human Dignity had led courts to give preference to individual human rights and freedoms over policies that perpetuated Israel as a Jewish state. The version backed by Prime Minister Netanyahu would define Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” and as a “Jewish and democratic state,” according to press reports. Civil society organizations and some political leaders expressed concern that such a law could lead to discrimination against non-Jewish minorities.

Busloads of Muslim worshippers routinely traveled from different parts of the country to Jerusalem for prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but the government refused some buses entry to the site on July 21, in the midst of the crisis that began with the July 14 terrorist attack.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated rules against non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including members of the Knesset, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.

Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, a view the ultra-Orthodox community supported. Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Some government coalition MKs, such as Yehuda Glick, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site in order to provide equal religious freedom for all who find the site holy. MK Bezalel Smotrich called for “implementing Jewish sovereignty” there. Glick and some Jewish NGOs, such as the Temple Institute and Temple Mount Faithful, continued to call on the government to implement a time-sharing plan at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set aside certain hours for Jewish worship, similar to the practice at the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Muslim authorities continued to oppose this idea. Some Jewish and non-Jewish MKs condemned the government’s ban on all MKs from ascending the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Prime Minister Netanyahu allowed MKs to enter the compound for one day in August, and two Jewish MKs did so. One Jewish MK also entered on October 25. On April 2, the Supreme Court rejected a request by Temple Mount activists to sacrifice sheep near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for Passover.

Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his support for the status quo arrangement at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, for example, in remarks to reporters on July 16.

The government continued to permit persons of all faiths to pray at the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the holiest site in Judaism, but with separation of women and men, and with the women’s section being less than half the size of the men’s section. On June 25, following ultra-Orthodox parties’ objections to elements of a January 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements, the cabinet voted to “freeze” the agreement. At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the government to expedite construction to upgrade the temporary egalitarian prayer space, a platform for Reform and Conservative Jewish services south of the main Western Wall plaza, but the non-Orthodox movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement. In response to a Supreme Court case on the issue, the government stated in September it would not raise the agreement for another government decision, and the court had no grounds to impose an agreement. The case was pending at the end of the year, with the next hearing scheduled for January 2018.

Authorities continued to prohibit anyone from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and to prohibit women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. The authorities permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions. The police continued to allow the group Women of the Wall to enter the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza for its monthly service, but the media reported that security guards conducted intrusive body searches on some women while searching for Torah scrolls under their clothes on August 23, despite a January 11 injunction by the Supreme Court prohibiting such searches.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs.

In September ultra-Orthodox MK Yisrael Eichler described the non-Orthodox movements who were party to the Western Wall agreement as “enemies of the Jewish religion,” while Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar described them as “accursed evil people” and compared them to Holocaust-deniers, according to press reports. Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned Amar’s remarks. Also in September media reported that opposition MK Haneen Zoabi stated the country’s “fascist laws” make it “suitable to compare, logical to compare, Israel … with Germany in the [19]30s.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties continued to be against legal changes to the status quo regarding issues of halacha and state, which opponents said raised religious freedom concerns. For example, the only in-country marriages the government recognized for Jews were those performed by the Chief Rabbinate, which continued to refuse to perform marriages involving citizens without maternal Jewish lineage, because the Chief Rabbinate did not consider them Jewish according to halacha. Likewise, men with ancestry in the Jewish priesthood (cohanim) were not allowed to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha. On September 19, media reported Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed support for greater religious pluralism for Jews in Israel, but stated that he “won’t solve” the disparity between halacha-based laws and public practice by the non-Orthodox majority which largely eschews them. Analysts in media and civil society ascribed Netanyahu’s position to the reality of his political coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties.

According to the think tank Israel Democracy Institute, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews worked illegally on Shabbat, but the government made little effort to enforce the ban on Jews’ employment on Shabbat, while credit card companies reported 25 to 30 percent of all consumer activity occurred on Shabbat. Four consecutive ministers of interior refused to act on a bylaw allowing 164 grocery stores and kiosks to operate on Shabbat passed by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality in 2014. The Supreme Court ruled on April 19, and again on October 26, that the protracted nondecision of the ministers of interior was unlawful, and the bylaw could take effect. On September 11, non-Orthodox Jewish groups withdrew a petition to the Supreme Court that had argued the Shabbat ban on public transportation adversely impacted those of low socioeconomic status, after the judges noted their petition was lacking an aggrieved public transportation operator. The petitioners stated they would establish such an operator and apply for a license from the Transportation Ministry to operate on Shabbat, then return to the Supreme Court if the government denied its application. The NGO Hiddush reported in September that 73 percent of Jewish Israelis supported full or partial public transportation on Shabbat, up from 58 percent in 2010.

Following three years of hearings on a petition by women’s rights organizations to appoint a female director-general to the rabbinical courts, the Supreme Court ruled August 15 that since the position was inherently administrative, not religious, it must be open to anyone licensed as a rabbinic pleader, including women. In June the Rabbinical Courts Administration named a female deputy director-general for the first time. Since only men can become rabbis under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, there were no female judges in rabbinical courts, although some women have acted as rabbinic pleaders (equivalent to lawyers) since 1995.

A June hearing in the Knesset Committee for Distributive Justice discussed the inaccessibility of Jewish mikvah ritual baths to disabled women.

The MOI continued to rely on the guidance of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs.

Those who self-identify but are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others without Jewish matrilineage, were prohibited from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country, although some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis did officiate at these ceremonies outside of the Rabbinate. Ha’aretz reported on September 18 that the Chief Rabbinate had changed the registration status of 900 persons from Jewish to non-Jewish or “pending clarification” in 2015 and 2016, after the highest rabbinical court approved the Chief Rabbinate’s power to revoke Israelis’ Jewish status in December 2016. The NGO ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court against this practice, and the case was ongoing at year’s end.

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whose Judaism was not recognized by the state or the rabbinical courts. A ruling by the Supreme Court in 2016 expanded immigration rights under the Law of Return to those who completed private (non-Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in the country. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they continued to be accepted for the purpose of immigration under the Law of Return. A Supreme Court case to grant immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions was pending at year’s end.

In June the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition in the Supreme Court against what it said was the IDF’s practice of pressuring soldiers who were not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate to convert to Judaism through an expedited Orthodox Jewish conversion course. In its September 17 response to the court, the government stated it changed its procedures to allow soldiers to sign a waiver upon arrival at the course affirming they did not wish to participate. The court scheduled the next hearing for July 2018.

The MRS listed 23 Jewish cemeteries with plots for civil burial, managed by the National Insurance Institute, and 21 dedicated cemeteries for persons the government defined as “lacking religion.” Additionally, 13 cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents.

Pursuant to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling on easing the funding conditions for activities by the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities, the government continued to pay the salaries of 12 non-Orthodox rabbis serving regional councils. The Ministry of Housing continued to provide funding to build non-Orthodox Jewish religious institutions, which it designated “seminaries,” according to the Israel Religious Action Center.

In August the government cable and satellite broadcasting regulator fined Channel 20, the “Heritage Channel,” 100,800 shekels ($29,000) for excluding the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements from its programming, since its license describes the outlet as a platform for all streams of Judaism. Channel 20 appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and the case was ongoing at year’s end.

Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. On August 3, the education ministry supervisor of Jewish religious public high schools testified to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that educators in those schools discouraged girls from enlisting based on a religious ruling from the Chief Rabbinate.

The government maintained its policy not to accept applications for official recognition by evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated members of nonrecognized religions remained free to practice their religion, and that some leaders of these religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.

The only domestic marriages which had legal standing and could be registered were marriages performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Members of other nonrecognized groups could attempt to process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agreed. The government allowed civil registration of marriages held outside the country. The Interior Ministry continued to register same-sex marriages conducted abroad.

Some church leaders stated a law preventing a spouse from the West Bank or Gaza from obtaining resident status was especially challenging for Christian Israelis because their small population made it difficult to find a spouse within the community in Israel.

The government operated a special police unit of 60 officers for the investigation of “ideologically-based offenses” in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks (violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions the government had taken that the Jewish group opposed, actions by the government against members of the group committing the violence, or violent attacks by other Palestinians).

President Reuven Rivlin attended an interfaith ceremony to mark the completion of the restoration of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha on February 12. In 2015 arsonists burned a large section of the church and scrawled on the building’s stone walls sections of the Jewish prayer book that in this context denigrated Christians. In July a court convicted one person of charges including arson and defacing real estate with a hostile motive, and acquitted a second suspect. In January the government paid 1.5 million shekels ($432,000) for the restoration of the church.

The government provided separate public schools for Jewish children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic. Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools remained significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools.

For Jewish children there continued to be separate public schools for religious and secular families. Individual families were able to choose a public school system regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. By law, the state provided the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of ultra-Orthodox religious schools, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Public and private Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonality and similar storylines in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Minors had the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference.

Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools continued not to offer a basic humanities, math, and science curriculum, and in 2015 a group of formerly ultra-Orthodox students who graduated from these schools sued the state for allowing them to graduate without the requisite knowledge to participate in the economy. They said they were denied basic education and left lagging far behind secular Israelis in topics such as science, math, history, English, and geography. After the government responded to the court that the bearers of the responsibility are parents and educational institutions, and the statute of limitations should apply, a Jerusalem District Court judge dismissed the case.

A May report from the State Comptroller criticized the education ministry for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. In September 2016 the media reported municipal authorities denied at least 50 school girls entry into ultra-Orthodox schools to which they had been assigned because of their lack of “spiritual suitability” stemming from their Sephardic heritage. The government stated approximately 25 girls were denied entry. Reportedly, the Ministry of Education effectively used its control of the budget to persuade schools to change their policy towards some of these students, but in January the newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported 14 cases remained unresolved. In May the education ministry issued new regulations banning demand for a particular “spiritual authority” at home as an admissions criterion.

Christian church representatives stated that government budget cuts to private Christian schools categorized as “recognized but not official” schools could cause their schools to begin closing in five to 10 years. The government offered to fully fund the Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but the churches rejected this option, stating they would lose control over hiring teachers, admitting students, and using school property. Following a strike in 2015, the government pledged to transfer an additional 50 million shekels ($14.4 million) to the schools, of which church leaders received one-quarter in 2016 and the remainder in 2017. Church leaders stated this transfer helped reduce their debts from 2015, but did not resolve their annual deficits nor the financial disparity with the ultra-Orthodox schools, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but which received full government funding.

On July 31, the education ministry published a report showing its per-student annual budget for Jewish religious high schools in 2016-17 was 33,016 shekels ($9,500), 22 percent higher than for Jewish secular high schools and 54 percent higher than Arab high schools, whose students were predominantly Muslim. The amount for Druze high schools was comparable to Jewish secular schools. The report also found the ministry’s per-student budget in Jewish religious elementary schools was 19 percent higher than secular elementary schools and 4 percent higher than Arab elementary schools.

The Custody of the Holy Land, a priory of the Franciscan order, reported local municipalities, such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, continued to charge property tax on monastery property, such as friars’ residences, parish halls, and other buildings that are part of the monasteries and do not conduct business activity. Church officials said they paid part of these disputed taxes during the year and the remainder was under negotiation. The government stated only properties mainly used for worship and having no business activities were exempt from property tax under the law, while religious organizations were obligated to pay taxes on other property and assets.

Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country. Church officials, however, noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who have served in the country for more than 30 years.

The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledgment of their right to conscientious objection. Since members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as an alternative service.

A Supreme Court petition by the organization Yesh Gvul called to change the criteria for exemptions from military service based on conscientious objection to be equivalent to the criteria for exemptions based on religious beliefs. The government’s preliminary response stated the two exemptions are based on different sections of the law for different circumstances, and requested dismissal for lack of cause. The court scheduled the next hearing for June 2018.

Since September 2014, the government has allowed Christians and individuals who spoke Aramaic to register with their national or ethnic group listed as Aramean instead of Arab. A report published on April 3, by the Knesset Research and Information Center, found only 16 persons had changed their registration to Aramean as of February.

The MOI trained Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. Approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in Israel were appointed and funded by the MOI. Muslim leaders alleged the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. The other Israeli Druze and Muslim clerics were nonstate employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget, according to the government. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious leaders. There remained no Islamic seminaries in the country, and students of Islam traveled to other countries, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study.

According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), in recent years the government approved plans for the establishment of 15 new towns and settlements in the Negev region, the vast majority intended for the Jewish population. Authorities approved plans for settlements named Hiran, Daya, and Neve Gurion to replace existing Bedouin villages. Authorities planned Daya to replace the unrecognized village al-Qatamat, and Neve Gurion was to replace some houses in the recognized village of Bir Haddaj.

During a police action on January 18 to demolish homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, in preparation to replace it with a Jewish settlement called Hiran, police shot local resident Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qian, and Abu al-Qian’s car subsequently struck and killed one police officer. Abu al-Qian died of his wounds shortly thereafter. Village leaders expressed openness to almost any option that would allow them to remain in place, including living side-by-side with Jewish neighbors in an expanded community. The NGO Adalah wrote a letter to the National Planning and Building Council on August 7, objecting to bylaws drafted by the Hiran cooperative association that would allow only Orthodox Jews to live in Hiran, stating the government intended to replace the Muslim residents of Umm al-Hiran. A group of 35 Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement, which advocates internal settlements, remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting to obtain the land. The group included an estimated 175 children.

Some former mosques and cemeteries, belonging to the defunct prestate Waqf (different from the Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence, remained sealed and inaccessible, even to Muslims. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities. They noted, however, that Be’er Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 continued to travel to nearby Bedouin towns to pray, since they could not use an Ottoman-era Be’er Sheva mosque the government converted to a museum of Islamic culture following a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, and the government would not authorize the construction of another mosque.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals according to Islamic customs. In June the IDF issued new regulations allowing secular military funerals.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, “modesty signs” posted by private organizations demanded women obscure themselves from public view so as not to distract devout men, which NGOs stated they perceived as an infringement on women’s equality and human dignity. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from January 2015 and January 2016 to take down the signs, leading the Jerusalem District Court on June 7 to rule the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,900) for each day the signs remained up after July 6. The municipality appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing on the case for March 2018.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled June 21 that requests by airline staff to female passengers to change seats when an ultra-Orthodox man objected to sitting next to a woman were discriminatory. According to the Israel Religious Action Center, asking a passenger to change seats because of her gender would be no different from asking someone to move because of their race or religion. The court awarded 6,500 shekels ($1,900) to an octogenarian plaintiff who brought a case against El Al after she changed seats at the request of a flight attendant in 2015.

A Supreme Court ruling on September 12 reaffirmed the Chief Rabbinate had sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. It broadened, however, the allowance for alternative non-Rabbinate certification, such as that of the independent Orthodox organization Hashgacha Pratit, stating restaurants without a kashrut certificate were allowed to present “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance.” The media reported on September 27 that the Chief Rabbinate levied a 2,000 shekel ($580) fine on a Jerusalem restaurant for displaying a new certificate by Hashgacha Pratit, which the organization stated conformed to the September 12 Supreme Court ruling. A May report from the State Comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.

In March the NGO Adalah withdrew a petition from the Supreme Court that objected to a law banning meat imports without a kashrutcertificate from the Chief Rabbinate after the judges indicated they did not perceive the law treating secular Jews and non-Jews differently.

Sources stated that some non-kosher restaurants that opened on the Sabbath paid fines that varied according to local laws.

Religious identification was listed in the National Registry, but not on official identity cards.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews. Jehovah’s Witnesses described violent attacks, such as a July 20 assault by a woman on a Jehovah’s Witness in Tel Aviv, hitting her face and legs. On June 29, Jehovah’s Witnesses received a letter from the state prosecutor’s office stating it refused to reopen an investigation into an attack on a June 2016 Bible lecture in Rishon Lezion, after police had closed the case without charge in August 2016. At the time, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police had said they could not identify the attackers, whom they had failed to arrest at the time of the incident, despite video evidence. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported some municipalities refused to rent public halls to them, such as in Holon on June 21.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall continued to harass verbally visitors and Jewish worshippers who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as modest dress or gender segregation at the Western Wall Plaza. Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women pray at the Western Wall. Representatives of the egalitarian prayer group Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. On February 27, the Liba Center, an Orthodox Jewish organization working closely with the Chief Rabbinate, bused in more than 1,000 schoolgirls to oppose the monthly prayer service, according to media reports. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The court scheduled a hearing for January 14, 2018.

Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other Israelis, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. The media reported attacks and threats by ultra-Orthodox assailants against soldiers and those encouraging ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the military, including throwing stones at Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on August 8, posting signs threatening IDF Human Resources Branch Director Major General Moti Almoz in May and June, and burning effigies of IDF soldiers on May 13. In November the Ramle Magistrates Court ordered ultra-Orthodox activists to pay an ultra-Orthodox IDF officer 650,000 shekels ($187,000) compensation for defamation, according to media reports. Clashes and protests between secular and ultra-Orthodox residents occurred in the southern city of Arad in September, reportedly originating from conflicts over budgeting and the use of public buildings.

There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting at those wearing Christian clerical clothing, according to church leaders. Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women experienced harassment by non-Muslims on public buses in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Drivers who operated motor vehicles in or near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on the Jewish Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday night) in Jerusalem reported incidents of harassment, such as slurs or spitting, by ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents in those neighborhoods.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site.

The Northern Islamic Movement, which the government declared illegal in November 2015, continued to speak of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as “under attack” due to what it regarded as a large number of Jewish visitors and the government’s temporary installation of security measures after a July 14 terrorist attack at the site.

Ultra-Orthodox opposition to LGBTI pride parades outside of Tel Aviv sometimes led to threats and attacks. On June 22, police arrested an ultra-Orthodox man with a knife near the Be’er Sheva pride parade.

Activists who testified at a February Knesset hearing on LGBTI youths reported that some minors who expressed their sexual preferences in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis as suffering from mental illness, leading some to attempt suicide.

Jewish groups that oppose conversion of Jews to other religions, such as Yad L’Achim, urged Jewish women not to date non-Jewish men, for example with posts on social media encouraging women romantically involved with men from “a minority” to call the group’s 24-hour hotline. It continued to offer assistance to Jewish women and their children to “escape” cohabitation with Arab men, sometimes by “launching military-like rescues from hostile Arab villages,” according to Yad L’Achim’s website.

Lehava, described by the press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, faced criminal charges for violence against Arab men whom they said they perceived to be consorting with Jewish women. Following a petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center, authorities notified Lehava leader Ben-Tzion Gopstein on November 13 that he could be indicted on charges of incitement to violence, racism, terrorism, and obstruction of justice, pending a hearing.

According to sources who conducted Jewish weddings outside of the Rabbinate’s authority (i.e., did not register it), the vague wording of the law that deals with those who conduct such weddings and the government’s nonenforcement of the law, enabled non-Rabbinate Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings to occur openly, usually as an act of protest against the Rabbinate’s authority. Most Jewish Israelis, including those who are secular, continued to use Rabbinate-approved Orthodox rabbis to conduct their weddings. The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Orthodox wedding remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI. Approximately 11 percent of marriages registered with the MOI in 2015, the most recent year available, occurred abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

The Reform Movement, Conservative Movement, and the secular Jewish organization Be Free Israel started an “Equal Wedding” radio campaign in summer 2016, followed by billboards and street signs in April to raise awareness among Jews of options to wed outside the Chief Rabbinate, although the weddings would not receive government recognition. The campaign, which points the public toward the three non-Orthodox Jewish movements (Conservative, Reform, and secular) for wedding alternatives, led to anger in ultra-Orthodox communities and an objection from the Chief Rabbinate to the government regulator of commercial broadcasts. Vandals tore down some of the campaign’s billboards in Jerusalem.

Thousands of Jewish women were trapped in various stages of informal or formal get refusal, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, according to Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. In June, following issuance of new guidelines from the state attorney in November 2016, rabbinical courts in Jerusalem and Haifa approved requests to open criminal proceedings with the State Prosecutor’s Office against two get-refusers for the first time. This change would enable extradition requests of husbands living overseas, who account for over 80 percent of the rabbinical courts’ open cases, according to media reports. According to the government, the new guidelines change get-refusal from a private, civil matter to an issue of public concern, which would help to eliminate get-refusal from society. The two criminal investigations continued as of November.

The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. A child born to a woman still married to another man would be considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which would restrict the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community. The rabbinical courts reported on June 19 that they succeeded in obtaining 211 gets in 2016, and media reported the courts had approximately 150 open cases.

Following the July 14 killing of two Druze Israeli policemen by three Muslim Israeli assailants, unknown suspects fired shots and threw stun grenades at mosques in the mixed Druze-Muslim-Christian city of Maghar, hometown of one of the July 14 victims, in separate incidents on July 16 and 17. Muslim and Druze religious leaders took actions to lower tensions, such as a visit by Muslim leaders to the mourning Druze families, but expressions of resentment and fear between the two groups persisted in the wake of the crisis, especially on social media. In August media reported a Muslim imam in the village of Kafr Qara led a successful public campaign to block the selection of a Druze headmaster to a Muslim high school because of the man’s religion.

Caretakers at a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa discovered several smashed gravestones on April 23. Also in April, media reported unidentified criminals inscribed satanic symbols with black and silver paint on the wall of a Russian Orthodox church in Haifa. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, on September 20, vandals shattered stained-glass windows and committed other acts of vandalism in St. Stephen’s Church at the Beit Gemal Monastery near Beit Shemesh. The Jerusalem District prosecutor indicted an ultra-Orthodox man on September 4 for painting graffiti and death threats against Reform Jewish leaders on a reform synagogue in Ra’anana in November 2016.

More than 1,000 Christian Israelis visited Christian holy sites in Lebanon on organized tours during the year, following mediation by Christian clergy with the Israeli and Lebanese governments, according to press reports.

A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand bilingual schools, Hiddush, the Israeli Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounters.

The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and sponsored activities to promote tolerance in response to the attacks. One such attack occurred on May 9, in the Arab village of Na’ura, where anonymous vandals slashed the tires of nine vehicles and wrote anti-Muslim graffiti on a nearby wall, according to press reports.

Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza – West Bank and Gaza

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the Palestinian population at 2.7 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the Gaza Strip (July 2017 estimates). According to U.S. estimates, the Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) estimates 536,600 Jewish Israelis live in Jerusalem – including areas in East Jerusalem which Israel captured in the 1967 War and unilaterally annexed in 1980 – accounting for approximately 61 percent of the city’s total population of 882,652. According to CBS, an estimated 332,600 Palestinians reside in Jerusalem, of whom approximately 12,000 are Palestinian Christians, and approximately another 2,000 residents who are non-Palestinian Christians. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reported an estimated 400,000 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to various estimates, approximately 50,000 Christians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports, there are approximately a thousand Christians residing in Gaza. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics (Melkites), Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Copts, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations. Christians are concentrated primarily in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere. Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) as well as a small number of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses reside in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The inhabitants of the different portions of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Israelis and Palestinians living in Jerusalem are subject to Israeli civil and criminal law. Israelis living in West Bank settlements are nominally subject to military law but Israeli authorities apply Israeli civil and criminal law to them in practice. Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord fall under Israel’s military legal system for criminal and security issues as well as civil issues, while Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil law and Israeli military law for criminal and security issues. Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies Israeli military law whenever its military enters Area A. The Gaza Strip officially comes under the jurisdiction of an interim PA government, although Hamas exercises de facto authority over it.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction. The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.” It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. The Basic Law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation.

There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA. Nineteenth century status quo arrangements reached with the Ottoman authorities, which are observed by the PA, recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox Churches. Later agreements with the PA recognized the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) and Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Legally recognized religious groups are empowered to adjudicate personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. They may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities.

Churches not officially recognized, but with unwritten understandings with the PA based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including the Assemblies of God, the Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, may operate freely. Some may perform some official functions such as issuing marriage licenses. Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA. These churches may not proselytize. There are a small number of such churches which became active within the last decade and whose legal status remains uncertain.

By law, Islamic institutions and places of worship receive financial support from the government.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates. There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religious courses. Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank which include religious instruction. Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank. Churches also operate “recognized but unofficial” (a form of semiprivate) schools in East Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf operates private schools in East Jerusalem; both include religious instruction.

Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support. For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. Legally, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.

Palestinian law provides that in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council (that has not met since 2007) six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats. There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group. A presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for 10 West Bank municipal councils.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.” Under Israeli law, the Israel Land Administration (ILA), which manages 93 percent of Israel’s land, may not lease land to foreign nationals.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: Violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces continued. Since religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity. On July 14, three Muslim Israeli Arab attackers shot and killed two Druze INP officers and injured a third at an entrance to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, prompting Israeli police to close the compound and cancel Muslim Friday prayers. Following the compound’s reopening, the INP erected new security measures at entrances used by Muslim worshippers. The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf rejected the measures, characterizing them as a violation of the status quo understanding between Israeli and Jordanian authorities. Following protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the INP removed the equipment. In accordance with status quo arrangements with the Waqf, the Israeli government continued to prohibit non-Muslim prayer and other religious practices at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but Israeli police became more permissive of silent Jewish prayer and other religious rituals performed on the site, according to the Waqf and multiple NGO observers. Citing security concerns, the Israeli government also imposed access restrictions on Muslim worshippers in what the Waqf said was a breach of the status quo, including temporary blanket age restrictions on several days during the year. Visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists increased again during the year to record levels, and especially during Jewish and Israeli national holidays. Some Israeli NGOs and Members of Knesset (MKs) said the status quo arrangement restricted Jews’ freedom of worship. The Israeli government continued to permit both Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, although Israeli police frequently limited access to Palestinians to the Western Wall Plaza for what they stated were security reasons. Various Israeli and PA political and religious leaders continued to condemn ideologically-motivated violence. Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible, although NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that those arrests rarely led to successful prosecutions. The Israeli government criticized the designation by UNESCO in July of the old city of Hebron, including the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage site in Palestinian territory. The Israelis stated that UNESCO’s approval of a Palestinian motion to recognize Hebron as a heritage site was a deliberate attempt to diminish Jewish and Israeli connections to the area.

On July 14, three Israeli Arab attackers shot and killed two INP officers and injured a third at the Bab al-Hutta entrance to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. Citing security concerns, Israeli police closed the compound and cancelled Muslim Friday prayers for the first time since 1969, when an Australian visitor set fire to the pulpit inside Al-Aqsa Mosque. The INP reopened the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount on July 16 to residents of the Old City but erected new security screening equipment, including metal detectors, at entrances to the site used by Muslim worshippers. The Waqf rejected these measures, characterizing them as a violation of the status quo. Muslim worshippers refused to enter the site pending full reversal of all newly imposed security measures. Protests included “days of rage,” sit-ins, and prayers. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors were reported in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank through July 27. Tensions subsided July 27, and Muslims returned to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount when the INP removed the last of the newly installed equipment.

The Israeli government continued to control access to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The INP continued to be responsible for security, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and regulated pedestrian traffic in and out of the site. Fatah and other Palestinian political factions organized protests (often using the term “days of rage”) throughout the year and called on Palestinians to defend the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

The Chief Rabbinate continued to rule that Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount were prohibited on religious grounds for reasons of ritual purity. Visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists facilitated by Israeli authorities to the site, however, increased again during the year to record levels. The Waqf expressed concern over these activists’ increased attempts to pray on the site in violation of the status quo, as well as over continuing calls by some activists to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with the Third Jewish Temple. According to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, activists associated with the Temple Mount movement conducted 25,628 visits to the site during the year, compared to approximately 14,800 in 2016. Visits reached a single-day record of 1,079 on Tisha b’Av (August 1), a day which commemorates multiple tragedies in Jewish history, including the destruction of the Jewish temples. The increase in visits on Tisha b’Av prompted criticism from Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, who reiterated that walking on the site is forbidden by Jewish law. According to Temple Mount movement groups and the Waqf, during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 2,266 visits, a 40 percent increase over the comparable period in 2016. The INP permitted multiple groups to visit the site concurrently, expanding the permitted size of each groups to more than 70 persons, according to the Waqf, Temple Mount activist groups, and media reports. In accordance with previously instituted practices, Israeli police announced a temporary closure of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to non-Muslim visitors during the last 10 days of Ramadan; however, on several occasions the INP permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during that period.

The status quo understandings pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount prohibit non-Muslim worship on the compound, which some Israeli NGOs and MKs said restricted Jews’ freedom of worship. Some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police, however, performed religious acts such as prayers, weddings, and prostration. The incidence of such acts at the site represented an increase from previous years, according to local NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount movement groups, who also reported that changes in relations between the police and the Temple Mount movement created a more permissive environment for silent prayer. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them, but in other cases, some of which were documented on social media in photos and videos, police appeared not to notice the acts of prayer. Some Jewish Temple Mount activists toured the site in bare feet, consistent with their interpretation of Jewish tradition at the times of the two Jewish temples, to which the Waqf raised objections. Israeli authorities sometimes barred individual Jewish Temple Mount activists who had repeatedly violated rules against non-Muslim prayer on the site, including Temple Mount movement leaders.

Some government coalition Knesset members continued to call on the Israeli government to implement time-based division at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to set aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The Knesset Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish Connection to the Temple Mount, headed by MK Yehuda Glick and Chairman of the Jewish Home faction MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, organized a conference in December to urge the Chief Rabbinate to remove its religious ruling that Jewish visits to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount were prohibited. MK Yehuda Glick and other members of the Temple Mount movement continued to advocate to reverse the status quo prohibition on non-Muslim prayer at the site, describing it as a restriction on religious freedom.

Israeli police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious paraphernalia. Israeli police continued to have exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance – the only entrance through which non-Muslims could enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – and allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours, although police sometimes restricted this access due to what they stated were security concerns. Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas, but did not coordinate with Waqf guards inside.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing, such as Jewish prayer shawls. The INP sometimes acted upon these objections and/or enforced the restrictions of its own accord.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over what they said were violations by Israeli police of the status quo arrangements regarding control of access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Waqf’s administrative authorities on the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions to allow non-Muslim visitors onto the site or to restrict access to broad categories of Muslim worshippers or to individual Palestinians whom police suspected could disrupt the non-Muslim visits. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a reduced oversight role. They reportedly could object to the presence of particular persons, such as individuals dressed immodestly or causing disturbances, but lacked the authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials also stated Israeli police challenged the Waqf’s authority by restricting its administration of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, particularly by prohibiting building and infrastructure repairs. For example, Israeli police prevented the Waqf from carrying out routine repairs without advance approval and oversight from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf. Waqf officials stated these restrictions impacted its ability to repair leaking water pipes and address electrical problems inside the Dome of the Rock and other buildings; in addition, these restrictions prevented the Waqf from pursuing approximately 20 major renovation projects. Waqf officials also reported Israeli police on occasion detained Waqf employees (typically guards) or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting Jewish activist groups.

According to media reports and the Waqf, Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists whom the INP had previously removed from the site for violating rules concerning non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures whom authorities feared would inflame tensions. During the year, Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to instruct police to bar sitting government ministers and MKs from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. For the first time since 2015, however, he ordered police to permit MK visits for one day on August 29, and subsequently permitted MK Yehuda Glick to visit the site on October 25, according to the Waqf. Israeli police continued to enforce “black lists” barring at least 50 Muslim men and women they accused of verbally harassing Jewish visitors to the site. Israeli police said some of these banned Muslims had objected to what they perceived as attempts by Jewish Temple Mount activists to break the status quo injunction against non-Muslim prayer on the site.

The Israeli government and the PA sometimes prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting Jewish religious sites in PA-controlled territory in the West Bank for security reasons. Palestinians threw stones and clashed with IDF escorts during visits of Jewish groups to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (located in Area A) on several days during the year. The IDF used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse Palestinian protesters, to secure the site, and/or to evacuate Jewish worshippers.

According to Christian religious, political, and civil society leaders, a combination of factors continued to provide the impetus for increased Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank, including political instability; the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions maintained by the municipality in Jerusalem or Israeli authorities in Area C; the difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; Israeli government family reunification restrictions; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions.

Jerusalem-based Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the continuing decline of Christian population in Jerusalem, and in particular, about the departure of young Palestinian Christian families, which impacted the long-term viability of Jerusalem parishes. These Christian leaders noted that, of the approximately 14,000 Christians residing in Jerusalem, many were already married. As such, the pool of eligible marriage partners remained limited, compelling Palestinian Christians to search for spouses in the nearby Christian communities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and others, located in the West Bank. In 2003, however, the Knesset passed a law freezing, in most cases, the family unification process for Jerusalem permanent residents. Over the past 15 years, this order has effectively denied Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are permanent residents of Israel, the possibility of living in East Jerusalem with spouses from the West Bank or Gaza, and denied their children born in Gaza or the West Bank permanent residency status in Jerusalem. Christian leaders stated that this measure has forced many East Jerusalem Christians and Muslims to relocate to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside Israel’s security barrier, the West Bank, or emigrate. Palestinians not leaving East Jerusalem due to this policy or for other reasons risked losing their permanent residency and the attendant social welfare benefits.

While under Israeli law the ILA could not lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show that they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Palestinian Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens of Israel to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of East Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have been able to acquire property built on ILA-owned land.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the security barrier, particularly south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, impeded their work. Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship. Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier. Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier. The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense, and that it has been highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.

Bethlehem-based Christian leaders stated construction of the security barrier also impacted the Christian community residing in the area by inhibiting economic growth and limiting employment-related movement. In addition, Bethlehem residents asserted that political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector. During the year, Bethlehem had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate.

On September 25, representatives of Palestinian Christian churches raised concerns before the Human Rights Council in Geneva over the impact of the security barrier on the Christian community of Beit Jala, according to media reports. The security barrier runs through the Cremisan Valley on land owned by 58 Christian Palestinian families, close to a monastery and its sister convent and school. The construction of the barrier has restricted farmers’ access to their lands.

Nonrecognized churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups, face a continued ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered by the PA. The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents issued by some of these nonrecognized groups, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives reported the PA issued birth certificates for their members but would not issue marriage licenses, resulting in children born to these couples listed as having been born out of wedlock, which complicated inheritance claims. Many nonrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad in order to register the action officially in the second location.

The PA continued to implement its policy of providing imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and prohibited them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.

The PA Ministry of Waqf (Islamic religious endowments) and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards in 2014, older identity cards continued to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.

The Israeli government continued to permit both Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, the place of worship nearest the holiest site in Judaism, although Israeli police frequently limited access to Palestinians to the Western Wall Plaza for what they stated were security reasons.

The Israeli government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A). While these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting several Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus – a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims which is located near Balata refugee camp. Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several Jewish religious sites in the West Bank, including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than may be permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were needed to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. On June 25, Israeli security forces arrested 20 Israelis for attempting to enter Joseph’s Tomb illegally, without prior coordination with Israeli authorities. The suspects were released on bail. On October 11, clashes erupted when the ISF escorted a group of approximately 1,000 worshippers to Joseph’s Tomb.

According to local Palestinian political leaders and local press, Israeli authorities continued to prevent most Palestinians from accessing Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, but continued to allow relatively unimpeded access to Jewish visitors. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

The IDF continued to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham. Muslim leaders continued to oppose publicly, in statements to local media, the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements which gave Israel and the PA shared responsibility for the site. The IDF again restricted Muslim access on 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access on 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays. The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point with IDF security screening. The IDF granted Jews access to several entry points without security screening. The IDF also periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street to Palestinian pedestrians, citing security concerns. Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously but in separate spaces. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Muslim call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, saying it disturbed Jewish settlers in the surrounding areas or posed a security concern. The Israeli government criticized the designation by UNESCO in July of the old city of Hebron, including the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage site in Palestinian territory. The Israelis stated that UNESCO’s approval of a Palestinian motion to recognize Hebron as a heritage site was a deliberate attempt to diminish Jewish and Israeli connections to the site.

Religiously intolerant and anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. In July PA TV reportedly broadcast a video clip characterizing Jewish Israelis as “evil” and “satans,” and glorified armed resistance. Following the December 6 United States government declaration on Jerusalem, an official PA television program featured a poem that contained anti-Semitic language. Another video program broadcast on PA TV in December featured children stating that Jewish people poisoned the late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.

Civil society organizations alleged problematic content in Palestinian textbooks, including inappropriately militaristic and adversarial examples directed against Israel as well as the absence of Judaism alongside Christianity and Islam when discussing religion.

Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible. In June the GOI indicted Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, a rabbi in a West Bank settlement, for incitement to violence against Palestinians. Elitzur is also coauthor of the controversial book, “The King’s Torah,” which attempts to justify in religious terms the killing of non-Jews in certain circumstances. In December an Israeli court sentenced Yitzhar settlement resident Eliraz Fein to five months’ community service for social media posts calling for violent acts against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. The court gave Fein a 10-month suspended prison sentence and a 2,000 shekel ($575) fine for comments she made in an email forum in which Yitzhar residents mulled the legality under Jewish law of attacking, and even killing, IDF soldiers “under certain circumstances.” In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions. Israeli NGO Yesh Din also reported Palestinian victims generally feared reprisals by perpetrators or their associates. Both of these factors increased Palestinian victims’ reluctance to file official complaints, according to Yesh Din. In response to these reports, the Israeli government stated the special unit it established in 2013 in the West Bank to combat nationalistic crimes continued to face evidentiary challenges. Those challenges included long delays before Palestinians filed complaints, submission of complaints by NGOs rather than plaintiffs, lack of cooperation by witnesses, and challenges in coordinating with the PA. The Israeli government reported this unit opened 142 cases and filed 66 new indictments in 2017.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem and the West Bank continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli government entity, exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds of other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. In March the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled against a petition filed by Emek Shaveh, a Jerusalem-based Israeli archaeological NGO, seeking to nullify the Israel Ministry of Religious Services’ declaration of the Western Wall tunnels as an exclusively Jewish holy site, since excavations also unearthed a Christian chapel, an Islamic school, and Islamic Mamluk-era buildings. The court rejected the petition, but ruled that the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must ensure that those sections of the tunnels significant to Muslims and Christians were properly managed to protect the antiquities and to ensure access and enable worship for members of other religions. Under Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Religious Affairs. Based on this provision, Emek Shaveh submitted another petition to the High Court of Justice in June requesting a halt to Western Wall tunnels excavations pending the necessary approvals by the ministerial committee. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation continued to promote ongoing archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the Western Wall Plaza, including tunnels underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, which the Waqf stated were altering the religious landscape of the area around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy from entering and working. The Israeli government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single entry visas, which local parish leaders in the West Bank said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan. Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays before they received visas, and reported periodic denials of their visa applications. The Israeli government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing. Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa renewal applicants also faced long delays.

According to some church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy from entering Gaza, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority. Israel facilitated visits by clergy, including bishops from non-Arab countries, to Gaza on multiple occasions, including delegations from Europe, North America, and South Africa.

Three PA ministries (Finance, Economy and Tourism) were headed by Christians at year’s end.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other militant and terrorist groups were active in Gaza. Hamas remained in de facto political control.

Hamas, PIJ, and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and incited to violence via traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events. In January thousands of Hamas activists and supporters participated in a protest organized at the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza to rally against Israel and praise the terrorist ramming attack in Jerusalem that killed four IDF soldiers. Speaking at the rally, a Hamas official voiced support “for every jihadi who carries out an attack that puts an end to the acts of the Zionist enemy.”

Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law. According to media accounts, Hamas continued neither to investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment.

Some Muslim students continued to attend schools run by Christian institutions or NGOs in Gaza.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators said was justified at least partly on religious grounds. Because religion and ethnicity or nationality were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity. Actions included killings, physical and verbal attacks on worshipers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites. There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic media items.

In June three armed Palestinian assailants arrived at the Old City’s Damascus Gate; one of the assailants fatally stabbed Hadas Malka, a border police officer. On July 21, a Palestinian stabbed and killed three Israeli citizens – a father, son, and daughter – in the West Bank settlement of Halamish. Some of these attackers cited specific religious motivations on social media before perpetrating the attacks. For example, prior to carrying out the attack in Halamish, the assailant commented on Facebook that he would take actions to “defend” the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Israeli authorities arrested the assailant, and demolished his house on August 16.

Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails and committed other acts of violence against Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. On August 29, the IDF shot and wounded two Palestinians while the soldiers were providing protection to a group of Jewish worshipers visiting the Joseph’s Tomb holy site, Palestinian media reported. The IDF confirmed that during the incident, soldiers “identified an armed suspect and opened fire on him.”

According to multiple media reports, Jewish groups harassed and attacked Muslim and Christian Palestinians. The Jewish Israeli antiassimilation organization Lehava continued to protest social and romantic relationships between Jews and Palestinians, made anti-Christian and anti-Muslim statements, and reportedly assaulted Palestinians in West Jerusalem. The Israeli police remanded Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein to house arrest October 22, following allegations he made threats against Arabs in romantic relationships with Jewish women. The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court sentenced Gopstein to five days house arrest. Of the 14 other members of the group arrested at the same time for making similar threats, the court extended the house arrest of two by two days, and released the remaining 12, Hebrew-language media reported. According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish attacks against Muslims and Christians successfully, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence.

Local Christian clergy said some Jewish Israelis in Jerusalem continued to subject them to nonphysical abuse, including insults and spitting. These incidents often occurred in the Old City and near the shared holy site of the Cenacle (devotional site of the Last Supper)/David’s Tomb near the Old City.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians, established Christian groups opposed their efforts to obtain official recognition from the PA because of their proselytizing.

Jewish proponents of accessing and performing religious rituals at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, such as Return to the Mount, the Temple Mount Faithful, and the Temple Institute, continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer at the site, while almost all ultra-Orthodox rabbis and some National Religious Orthodox rabbis continued to discourage Jewish visits. Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple. Political and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to call on members to “defend” the Al-Aqsa mosque.

According to Palestinian sources, most Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip pressured their children, especially their daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who sought to marry Jews, encountered considerable societal and family opposition. Families sometimes disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith.

Independent Palestinian media outlets continued to broadcast anti-Semitic programming. Multiple social and traditional media sites glorified attacks against Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”

According to local press and social media, some Israeli settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees or “price tag” attacks (property crimes and violent acts by extremist Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians), as necessary for the defense of Judaism.


Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 190.6 million (July 2017 estimate). A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated the population to be 49.3 percent Christian and 48.8 percent Muslim, while the remaining 2 percent belong to other or no religions. Many individuals combine indigenous beliefs and practices with Islam or Christianity. A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identified as Sunni and 12 percent as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “Just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi groups, including Tijaniyah and Qadiriyyah. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi Muslims. Christian groups include evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other groups include Jews, Bahais, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

The Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim northern states. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri, also reside in the north, and Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the central part of the country and in the southwestern states, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group, whose members include both Muslims and Christians, predominates. In the southeastern states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where the Ogoni and Ijaw ethnic groups predominate, Christians form a substantial majority, and a very small minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the central and southern regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership on the basis of religion or with names that have a religious connotation.

The constitution provides for state-level courts based on common or customary law systems, which have operated in the region for centuries. It specifically recognizes sharia courts of appeal in any states that require it, with jurisdiction over civil proceedings such as marriage, inheritance, and other family matters, where all the parties are Muslims. Sharia courts hear criminal cases in 12 northern states. State laws on sharia criminal courts vary, but at least one state, Zamfara, requires that criminal cases in which all litigants are Muslim be heard in sharia courts. According to state laws, sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including hudood offenses (serious criminal offenses with punishments prescribed in the Quran) and prescribe punishments, such as caning, amputation, and death by stoning. State laws dictate non-Muslims have the option to try their cases in sharia courts if involved in civil or criminal disputes with Muslims. Common law courts hear the cases of non-Muslims and Muslims (in states where they have the option) who choose not to use sharia courts. Sharia courts do not have the authority to compel participation by non-Muslims. Aggrieved parties may appeal sharia court judgments to three levels of sharia appellate courts. According to the constitution, decisions by the state sharia courts of appeal (the highest level of the sharia courts) theoretically can be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, although none have been.

Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, distribute licenses to imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.

In order to build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($56).

Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution states schools may not require students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place maintained wholly by that community.

Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools of registered religious groups. A Katsina State law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: In November Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three members of the IMN during its annual Ashura procession. The government continued to detain Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, leader of the IMN, the largest Shia Muslim group in the country, despite a court order that he be released by January 15. There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the 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. Some Christian groups reported a lack of protection by government authorities for churches and Christian communities, especially in the central and northern regions. They reported discrimination in acquiring land permits to build churches and in admission to universities in the north. Muslims living in predominantly Christian states reported discrimination by state governments against such practices as women wearing the hijab. There were continued conflicts between migrant ethnic groups, known as settlers, who were mainly Muslim, and longstanding residents or indigenes, who were mainly Christian, which the groups accused the federal government of ignoring. Farmer-herder violence remained a form of the indigene-settler conflict, since herders were generally not seen as indigenous to the land by farmers. The differences between the indigenes and settlers were frequently religious as well as ethnic and economic. State governments often granted preferential treatment, for example in access to education and jobs, to indigenes over settlers.

According to international reports, on November 5, Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession. Police arrested 10 members. The police spokesperson stated the IMN ignored instructions from police not to hold the procession.

The government stated publicly that Sheikh Zakzaky, leader of the IMN and a prominent Shia cleric, would remain in what it said was “protective custody” pending appeal of the December 2016 decision of Federal High Court in Abuja that the government must release him. At year’s end, Zakzaky remained in prison. The court also ruled the government must provide him with a house and pay him and his wife restitution of 25 million naira ($69,600) by January 15; at year’s end, the court’s order had yet to be followed.

There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the 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. Dozens of IMN members were still being held since December 2015, charged with the death of the soldier. In August Acting President Osinbajo announced the creation of a Presidential Investigative Panel that committed to transparently and credibly investigating human rights abuses committed by the military. On August 17, the IMN publicly stated it would boycott the panel because it doubted the panel’s sincerity. Outside human rights observers also expressed concern over lack of transparency and rigor of the panel. At year’s end, the panel’s findings were not yet available.

According to local media reports, the 23rd Armored Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Yola, Adamawa State, began an investigation into the disruption of an Assemblies of God church service in March by men in military uniforms but without nametags. Media reported the church had been affected by a leadership crisis, and a clergy member representing a rival faction in the leadership struggle reportedly invited the soldiers to enter the church and remove the presiding pastor. An army spokesperson stated that the army sent no personnel to the church and would investigate whether the attackers were in fact soldiers.

Both Muslim and Christian groups said there was a lack of just handling of their mutual disputes and inadequate protection by federal, state, and local authorities, especially in central regions, where there were longstanding, violent disputes between Hausa and Fulani Muslims and Christian ethnic groups. In disputes between primarily Christian farmers and Muslim herders, herders stated they did not receive justice when their members were killed or their cattle stolen by the farming community, which they said caused them to carry out retaliatory attacks. Farmers stated security forces did not intervene when their villages were being attacked by herdsmen.

A pending bill in Kaduna State would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years. The bill was introduced in 2016 in the state legislature and remained pending at year’s end. Deputy Governor of Kaduna State Barnabas Bala said the bill was proposed to protect the state from religious extremism and hate speech. The bill would also restrict playing religious recordings at certain times and places as well as prohibit “abusive” religious speech, which it did not define further. The draft bill generated widespread opposition from both Muslim and Christian groups, who cited fears that such steps would lead to broader government restrictions on religious organizations and general religious activity.

The media regularly reported on claims by Christian leaders and organizations that northern leaders, backed by the federal government, were engaged in an effort to Islamize the country. In September Caritas Nigeria stated a bill to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would give the federal government authority to regulate churches, which are registered as incorporated trustees and thus fall under the category of NGO, and thereby provide the government authority to restrict the activity of churches and promote Islam. The National Assembly member who introduced the bill responded that the bill’s intent was to ensure transparency and accountability in the way NGOs collected and used funds, and he said the bill would not affect mosques or churches. Also in September, CAN reported that the federal government’s proposal to issue Sukuk bonds, an Islamic financial certificate, was in violation of the country’s secular constitution and an attempt to Islamize the country. The minister of information responded that the Sukuk bond issuance was an attempt at financial inclusiveness, and the difference between a Sukuk bond and other bonds was that Sukuk bonds paid no interest.

In December BBC and other media reported that Amasa Firdaus, a law graduate from Ilorin University, was denied admission to the “call to bar” ceremony because she wore a hijab to the ceremony in what her law school said was violation of its dress code.

Christian groups reported authorities in northern states continued to deny building permits to minority religious communities for the construction of new places of worship, expansion, and renovation of existing facilities, or reconstruction of buildings that had been demolished. Christian religious leaders in Adamawa complained that Christians in Yola, Adamawa State, could not obtain permits to purchase land for churches. They said that Christians built the churches anyway, but remained vulnerable when governments decided to demolish them, such as what occurred in Jigawa State. In January the Jigawa State government demolished churches belonging to the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the Lord Chosen God in the state capital, Dutse. The state government said the churches were built illegally and the churches had been given three notices to stop development. CAN said the churches did not receive a response from the government for their land permit application. In Ekiti State in April, the state government was reportedly prepared to demolish a mosque in the state capital, Ado Ekiti. After protests, the governor and Muslim leaders in the state were able to reach an agreement, and the government allowed the mosque to remain, despite not having a permit.

The Hisbah continued to arrest street beggars and prostitutes, and destroy confiscated bottles of alcohol. There were no reports of Christians being forced to use sharia courts.

Christian and Muslim groups continued to report that individual administrators of government-run universities and technical schools in several states refused to admit certain individuals or delayed the issuance of their degrees and licenses because of religion or ethnicity. For example, in Borno State, Christian religious leaders said it is very difficult for Christians to be admitted into certain schools at the University of Maiduguri, especially medicine and engineering, where Muslims make up over 90 percent of the student body. They also stated that Christianity was not offered for the religious studies courses in many public schools in Maiduguri and northern Borno, only Islam. Muslim leaders in Jos, Plateau State, complained that local governments in Plateau discriminated against Muslim residents regarding land purchases, admittance to universities, and access to government jobs. According to Christian and Muslim groups and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the issue was connected to the country’s indigene-settler conflict, whereby state governments granted benefits, such as access to government services, to ethnic groups considered to be indigenous to a particular state and distinguished them from ethnic groups considered to be settlers, even if their families had lived in the state for generations. In certain states, especially in the Middle Belt, the divide between Christian indigenes and Muslim settlers was religious as well as ethnic and economic.

In February the Kwara State government hosted an international conference on security and peaceful coexistence, which included Muslim and Christian religious leaders. During his remarks, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Muslims in Nigeria, said “God did not make a mistake when he created us as Nigerians and put us together. We must understand that and all of us who profess to be Christians or Muslims have a guide which is either the Quran or Bible. In these two major religions there is nowhere where killing of innocent people is allowed.” In July more than 480 participants, including the Army Special Task Force, local government officials, and Christian and Muslim community leaders, met in Kafanchan to discuss establishing peace in the area and address grievances of victims of the communal violence. In January the governments of Nasarawa and Benue States worked together to enact a peace agreement between predominantly Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in Agatu, Benue State, after the January 2016 attack on the Christian community by herdsmen left more than 300 farmers dead.

According to press reports, in April Senate President Bukola Saraki stated: “….whatever laws we pass here, will be respectful to the religious beliefs of our people. We will not do anything that will in anyway go against that.”

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The U.S.-designated terrorist organization Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, one pledging allegiance to ISIS and calling itself the Islamic State of West Africa (ISIS-WA), headed by Abu Musab al Barnawi, and another headed by Abubakar Shekau and retaining the traditional Boko Haram name, the Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ). Most residents and government officials referred to both groups collectively as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram and ISIS-WA continued to attack population centers and security personnel in the states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. Vulnerable populations, notably those perceived as disagreeing with the groups’ political or religious beliefs or those perceived as interfering with their access to resources, were targeted by the groups. There were multiple reports of Boko Haram killing scores of unarmed civilians. On November 21, Boko Haram blew up a mosque in Mubi, Adamawa State, resulting in the deaths of 50 worshippers.

While Boko Haram no longer controlled as much territory as it once did, the two insurgencies maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launched attacks against civilian and military targets across the Northeast. On November 25, ISIS-WA militants launched an attack on Magumeri town in Magumeri local government area of Borno State, but security forces were able to repel them. From these areas of influence, the groups were still capable of carrying out complex attacks on military positions, and they deployed large numbers of roadside improvised explosive devices. According to estimates from NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 1,794 persons, including Boko Haram members, died as a result of the group’s activities during the year, compared with 2,900 killed in 2016. The Adamawa State chapter of the country’s Muslim Council reported that Boko Haram killed more than 5,247 Muslims since 2013 in Adamawa State. According to reports, Boko Haram killed more than 500 Catholics in Borno State since the insurgency began.

Approximately half of the students abducted by Boko Haram from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in 2014 remained in captivity. The government successfully negotiated the release of 82 of the kidnapped students in May, in addition to the 21 students released in October 2016. According to media reports, in September members of Boko Haram killed Chief Imam Ustaz Goni Bukar Tabare and four other individuals in Magumeri, Borno State. CAN reported more than 900 churches were destroyed by Boko Haram in the northeast since the insurgency began.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Summary paragraph: There were incidents of killings and other forms of violence between members of different religious groups. Many killings occurred between farmers and herders in the central Middle Belt region, where farmers are predominantly Christian and from various ethnic groups, and herders are predominantly Fulani Muslims. This violence included religious differences as a factor, according to scholars and other experts, but also involved ethnicity, politics, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources as a result of population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from other forms of violence and criminality occurring in the north. Participants at an April conference identified 13 triggers to farmer-herder conflicts and offered recommendations for peace. Among these triggers of violence was incitement by religious leaders and inaccurate reporting by media, which tended to divide religious communities. Among the solutions identified was to increase interfaith dialogue and initiate sensitization programs. Media reported on claims by Christian groups that northern leaders were engaged in an agenda to Islamize the country. For example, the National Christian Elders Forum issued a communique in July warning of jihad and “brazen” attempts at Islamizing the country. At a CAN-sponsored meeting of Christian leaders in November, participants issued a resolution calling for the National Assembly to withdraw the country from the Organization of Islamic Countries and other Islamic organizations.

On December 22, gunmen suspected of being Fulani herdsmen opened fire on a congregation, killing four and injuring 10 in Nindem, Kaduna State. A report from the Fulani community in southern Kaduna, however, said the attack in Nindem was not perpetrated by Fulani, but was possibly a conflict within the Nindem community. On December 24, a suspected Fulani herdsman attacked a village, Ungwan Mailafiya, in Jema’a Local Government Area and killed six persons. The same Fulani community source said the attack in Ungwan Mailafiya may have been carried out by a Fulani man whose son was killed in the village by local persons. He said authorities were still looking for the man.

On January 21, unknown gunmen opened fire on a Fulani settlement in Kaura Local Government Area of southern Kaduna, killing a pastoralist, 13-year old Yahaya Musa. In retaliation, on February 20 Fulani herdsmen attacked and killed 31 individuals in villages in the same area. In another attack later that day, suspected Fulani herdsmen attacked Zunuruk village in the same area, but were repelled by local residents, resulting in the death of some of the attackers. On February 21, a clash broke out between ethnic Hausa (predominantly Muslim) and Kanikon residents of Kafanchan, the largest city in southern Kaduna, when both groups went to claim dead bodies at the morgue, resulting in a number of deaths, including of two policemen. Some Kanikon residents reportedly assumed the Hausa residents came to claim the bodies of the attackers who were killed in the previous day’s violence. On February 22, police deployed a team of special forces to the troubled area.

According to media reports, on April 15, 12 worshippers died and many more were injured in Asso village in Kaduna state when Fulani herdsmen opened fire on an Easter Vigil service. Media said the attackers boasted about disrupting the Easter celebration.

From June 17-20, ethnic Mambilla residents of the Mambilla Plateau of Taraba State attacked dozens of Fulani settlements throughout the plateau, killing dozens of Fulanis and hundreds of cattle. On June 21, Acting President Osinbajo sent in troops to restore order. Thousands of Fulani residents of the Mambilla Plateau fled into neighboring Cameroon to seek refuge. On July 4, CAN and the Muslim Council of Nigeria brought leaders of the two communities together in a reconciliation summit, but the Fulani leaders walked out and vowed not to engage in reconciliation until those involved in the attacks were brought to justice.

From July 15-17, ethnic Fulani herdsmen and Kadara local residents clashed in Kajuru in Kaduna State, resulting in the deaths of 27 Fulani and six Kadara individuals. Media reports said the clash was the result of an incident days before when Kadara youths killed a Fulani boy who was considered to be a bandit engaged in criminal activities in the area. Fulani youths then reportedly in revenge killed six Kadara youths who were allegedly involved in the initial killing. Immediately after, Kadara youths attacked several Fulani settlements, burning tents and killing approximately 17 Fulanis. Security officials arrived to restore calm soon after, but when they departed, Kadara youths attacked other Fulani settlements and killed an estimated 10 persons. Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered additional security reinforcements to the area.

On September 8, Fulani herdsmen attacked villages in Bassa, Plateau State, killing 19 ethnic Irigwe residents, who are mainly Christian, and injuring five. The Plateau State commissioner of police said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Fulani boy on August 3. President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack, and the government sent a military task force to provide security to the affected community. On September 11, military personnel repelled another attack by Fulani gunmen, killing five. On November 20, ethnic Bachama local residents, who are predominantly Christian, killed more than 50 predominantly Fulani pastoralists in Numan Local Government Area of Adamawa State. The victims were women and children as the attack was carried out while the men were either in town or grazing cattle. The attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Bachama farmer by an unknown gunman, whom local residents suspected of being a Fulani herdsman.

In July a female suicide bomber killed eight individuals and wounded 18 before morning prayer at a mosque in Maiduguri. In January authorities thwarted a suicide bombing near a mosque in Maiduguri when, according to reports, a civilian self-defense force member stopped the bomber from reaching the mosque. Both died in the ensuing explosion.

In June traditional religious practitioners, known as masquerades, attacked a mosque in Moba Local Government Area of Ekiti State, injuring five worshippers, including the imam. The masquerades warned the Muslims against conducting their prayer service while the traditionalists were engaged in their festival, called Egungun.

A Lagos-based NGO, Muslim Rights Concern, said Muslim female students were not allowed to wear the hijab at Adeleke University in Osun State and Afe Babalola University in Ekiti State, both private universities.

According to international reports, in Kaduna State members of the IMN visited three churches to celebrate Christmas with Christians. The IMN advocated for religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence during the visits.

Many religious leaders publicly supported tolerance and interfaith cooperation to resolve conflicts. In January the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue hosted a two-day conference on inclusive and sustainable interreligious dialogue. At the conference, the Sultan of Sokoto condemned what he said was increased hate preaching in the country.

In January religious and political leaders conducted a peace and reconciliation mission to southern Kaduna in an effort to stem the violence between mainly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim herders. The delegation included former Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Bishop Matthew Kukah, and Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar. General Abubakar said there is no religion that preaches violence, and criminals must be brought to justice to ensure peace.

In January 100 Christian and Muslim religious leaders came together to found the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace (IDFP), a forum of Christian and Muslim representatives to address emerging interfaith issues, primarily in the troubled areas of Kaduna, Plateau, Yobe, Taraba, Borno and Adamawa States. The religious leaders selected Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar and Chairman of CAN Samson Ayokunle to head the IDFP. Its board of trustees includes eminent religious and traditional rulers from throughout the country.

On national hijab day on February 1, a coalition of women’s groups held a press conference in Alausa, in which the women discussed wearing of the hijab as their inalienable constitutional right that must always be protected by the government through laws.


Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 204.9 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a national census conducted in 1998, 95 percent of the population is Muslim (75 percent of the Muslim population is listed officially as Sunni and 25 percent as Shia). Per government figures, the remaining 5 percent includes Ahmadiyya Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Bahais, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalasha, Kihals, and Jains.

Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. According to 2014 media accounts, although there are 2.9 million non-Muslims registered with the National Database and Registration Authority; media estimates of the actual number exceed 3.5 million. Religious community representatives estimate minority religious groups constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population, approximately six to 10 million citizens.

According to the 2014 government registration documents cited by the press, there are approximately 1.4 million Hindus, 1.3 million Christians, 126,000 Ahmadis, 34,000 Bahais, 6,000 Sikhs, and 4,000 Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadiyya Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” A 1984 amendment to the penal code restricted the rights of members of the Ahmadiyya community to propogate their faith.

According to the constitution, every citizen also shall have the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad … ” It also states “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Bahai, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis are not Muslims and may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violation of these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine.

The penal code criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

A 2015 constitutional amendment allows military courts to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges; this authority was renewed in January for an additional two years. The government may also use special civilian terrorism courts to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.

The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax on the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims and distributes the funds to Sunni mosques, madrassahs, and charities.

The constitution mandates the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam, or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.

The constitution states no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs, and the students may have no other option. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. Private schools are free to teach or not teach religious studies.

By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. The law requires all madrassahs to register with one of five wafaqs (independent boards) or directly with the government, to account for their sources of financing, and to accept foreign students only with valid student visas, a background check, and the consent of their governments.

The constitution states “all existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from pre-partition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the court the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution empowers the court to review criminal cases relating to certain crimes, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The court exercises “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) in such cases in lower courts, a power which applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters which affect them or violate their rights if they so choose. Decisions of the court may be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council, as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. In March the government enacted legislation codifying the legal mechanisms to register Hindu marriages and to prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages under the law, a move which proponents state could help reduce the frequency of forced marriages and conversions of Hindus. The law allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism.

The government considers the marriage of a non-Muslim woman dissolved by the government if she converts to Islam, although a non-Muslim man may convert and his marriage remains recognized. Children born to a non-Muslim couple are considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children is for the husband also to convert to Islam. The children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group are considered illegitimate, and by law the government may take custody of the children.

The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights, an independent government-funded agency, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation on human rights violations; it has quasi-judicial powers and can refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority.

According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified.

The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation.

The government designates religious affiliation on passports and requests religious information in national identity card applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim.

The constitution requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires that elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam.

There are reserved seats for religious minority members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-seat National Assembly has 10 seats for religious minorities. The 104-seat Senate has four reserved seats for religious minorities, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in KP; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected by the minority constituencies they represent.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men is given greater weight than that of women; second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the president and prime minister be Muslims.

Government Practices

Summary paragraph: Civil society organizations continued to voice concern about the application of the country’s blasphemy laws. According to civil society reports, there were at least 50 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 17 of whom had received death sentences. According to data provided by CSOs, police registered at least 10 new blasphemy cases against 17 individuals. There were at least two minors imprisoned for blasphemy in Punjab Province. Civil society groups said the blasphemy laws disproportionately impacted members of religious minority communities. The Supreme Court acquitted two persons charged with blasphemy during the year; a third case was closed due to the death of the accused while awaiting trial, while other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. A high-profile government campaign against blasphemy on social media resulted in several indictments and legislation codifying the criminalization of online blasphemy. A Supreme Court hearing for the appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, remained on indefinite hold since October 2016. Several sources reported the continued practice of initiating blasphemy complaints against neighbors, peers, or business associates to intimidate them or to settle personal grievances, and said there were instances in which government entities such as the police and courts were complicit in this practice. Legal observers said authorities took steps to protect some individuals from unfounded accusations of blasphemy, although lower courts continued to fail to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Despite an August directive from the Islamabad High Court, the parliament took no action to amend the penal code to make the penalties for false accusations of blasphemy commensurate with those for committing blasphemy. According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, the targeting and harassment of Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy and other purported violations of law persisted. In October the president signed into law a bill that changed the electoral oath affirming belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam to a “declaration” and abolished separate voter lists for Ahmadis, sparking an uproar and weeks of protests by supporters of cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan political party, which said the change in the electoral oath was tantamount to blasphemy. In October and November, parliament passed legislation reversing both changes. Some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. The government continued to prosecute counterterrorism actions under the NAP, which included an explicit goal of countering sectarian hate speech and extremism. Civil society groups expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and police failed to arrest perpetrators of such abuses. NGOs and media outlets, however, reported police intervention helped to prevent religiously based violence on some occasions. Members of religious minority communities stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding minority rights, and official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya Muslims persisted. A bill passed by the Sindh Assembly in November 2016 criminalizing forced conversions stalled when the governor declined to ratify it, disappointing religious minority activists.

In April a mob attacked, shot, and beat university student Mashal Khan to death on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, following an accusation of blasphemy. According to university administrator statements, police who reported to the scene were unable to control the mob because there were so many students involved. A subsequent police investigation found that a group at the university had manufactured the blasphemy allegation against Khan due to his activism on campus. Members of the public and government officials, including the prime minister, condemned the killing. On September 19, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) indicted 57 individuals, including university employees, for their roles in the killing. The trial was ongoing at year’s end.

In January according to media reports, five secular social media activists who had criticized the government disappeared from cities around the country, triggering a public outcry against the government, which was widely believed to be responsible for the abductions. While the activists were missing, a number of Muslim clerics launched a social media campaign labeling the bloggers as blasphemers deserving of death. Four of the five activists reappeared several weeks later. In October one of the bloggers publicly stated he had been tortured by a state intelligence agency during his disappearance. As of year’s end, the whereabouts and fate of the fifth blogger, Samar Abbas, remained unknown. On December 22, the Federal Investigation Agency told the Islamabad High Court that it had found no evidence the bloggers had committed blasphemy.

According to press reports, in October Majlis Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen, a Shia political organization, launched a protest campaign in Karachi to highlight the issue of Shia activists who had been unlawfully detained or “disappeared” by authorities in recent years. Shia representatives had previously reported the government targeted Shia activists under the pretense of law enforcement actions. The Sindh chief minister denied the allegations.

According to CSOs, Indrias Masih, a Christian accused along with 41 others of lynching two Muslim men, died of gastrointestinal tuberculosis in August in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore. Some organizations said prison authorities neglected Masih’s health due to his status as a minority member. An ATC indicted Masih and the other 41 on charges of murder and terrorism in September 2016. The lynching allegedly occurred after terrorists bombed two Christian churches in March 2015. The trial was ongoing at year’s end.

According to data provided by CSOs, police registered new cases against at least 17 individuals under blasphemy laws during the year, compared with 18 new cases in 2016. There were continued reports of individuals initiating blasphemy complaints against neighbors, peers, or business associates to settle personal disputes or to intimidate vulnerable persons. While the law requires a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint can be filed, human rights activists said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. According to religious organizations and human rights groups, religious minorities continued to be disproportionately accused of blasphemy relative to their small percentage of the population. CSOs also stated police continued not to file charges against many individuals who made false blasphemy accusations, and if charges were filed, courts most often acquitted those accused.

On June 11, an ATC in Bahawalpur, Punjab, sentenced Taimoor Raza, a Shia Muslim, to death after he was convicted of posting blasphemous material on social media. The verdict represented the first time courts had convicted an individual for blasphemy stemming from a social media posting. The appeals process was ongoing at year’s end.

On September 14, a court in Gujrat, Punjab, sentenced Nadeem James, a Christian man, to death after he was convicted of sending blasphemous content via WhatsApp. James appealed the verdict to the Lahore High Court, and the case was pending at year’s end.

On October 12, a court in Sheikhupura, Punjab, sentenced three Ahmadis to death for blasphemy based on an incident that occurred in 2014. According to representatives of the Ahmadiyya community, the acts of blasphemy allegedly committed by the three involved their removal of posters that advocated the murder of Ahmadis with impunity due to their alleged apostasy.

In May a court in Rawalpindi sentenced Zafar Bhatti, a Christian, to life in prison for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages in 2012. Bhatti’s lawyer said he planned to appeal the case to the Lahore High Court.

In January an ATC in Lahore acquitted 115 individuals charged with burning more than 125 Christian homes in Joseph Colony in 2013, following a blasphemy allegation against a member of the Christian community. According to press reports, the courts cited a lack of evidence in the acquittal. At year’s end, no one had been convicted for the incident. The Christian whose alleged blasphemy sparked the attack remained on death row following his 2014 conviction.

In May media reported police in Hub, Balochistan, arrested Prakash Kumar, a Hindu, for sharing allegedly blasphemous material on social media. Police refused to hand Kumar over to a mob that subsequently gathered outside the station. In the violence that followed, a minor was killed and three police officers were injured. Kumar’s case was ongoing at year’s end.

The Supreme Court’s indefinite postponement of hearings regarding the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, continued. Authorities arrested Bibi in June 2009 after a group of Muslim women with whom she was arguing accused her of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. The Supreme Court indefinitely postponed Bibi’s October 2016 appeal hearing when a member of the three-judge bench assigned to the appeal unexpectedly recused himself. Prior to the judge’s recusal, clerics affiliated with some religious organizations threatened death to anyone involved in Bibi’s release. There was no subsequent hearing during the year.

In separate incidents in July and August, authorities in Punjab arrested two Christian teenagers for alleged blasphemy; the families of both boys said the accusations stemmed from interpersonal disputes. Another Christian teenager in Punjab, Nabeel (Masih) Amanat, remained in custody on blasphemy charges at year’s end; he faced up to 10 years’ imprisonment if convicted. Kasur District police arrested Amanat in September 2016 for sharing an allegedly blasphemous picture of the Kaaba in Mecca on Facebook.

On May 31, a court in Punjab sentenced two Ahmadis to three years’ imprisonment for publishing an Ahmaddiya publication banned by the province in 2014. Ahmadi representatives said a court order had allowed them to keep publishing, but the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Division raided the publication’s offices in December 2016, arresting four individuals. Ahmadi representatives stated those arrested were tortured while in police custody. An appeal against the judgment was pending with the Lahore High Court at year’s end.

In March authorities in Lahore charged two Ahmadis with blasphemy for preaching their faith. A court rejected their request for bail, and at year’s end they remained in prison awaiting trial.

Courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal, after the accused had spent years in prison. On February 27, the Supreme Court overturned a Balochistan High Court verdict of life imprisonment due to lack of evidence and exonerated Khuda Bakhsh, a man accused of burning a Quran in Naseerabad, Balochistan, in 2012. Bakhsh had been imprisoned for five years prior to the Supreme Court ruling. On June 7, the Supreme Court acquitted another individual convicted of burning a Quran based on lack of evidence. The Supreme Court verdict noted several inconsistencies and deficiencies in the original conviction, which stemmed from a 2006 allegation. On December 29, the Supreme Court, citing procedural irregularities related to evidence, overturned the life sentence of Mohammad Mansha for blasphemy after he had served nine years in prison. Mansha was arrested in 2008 after the imam of a mosque in Bahawalnagar, Punjab, told authorities Mansha had desecrated a copy of the Quran.

According to media reports, individuals convicted in well-publicized blasphemy cases from previous years, including Sawan Masih, Shafqat Emmanuel, Shagufta Kausar, Sajjad Masih Gill, and Liaquat Ali, remained in jail and continued to await action on their appeals.

Authorities charged 77 Ahmadis in 10 separate religion-related cases during the year, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders. As of the end of the year, nine Ahmadis remained in prison on religion-related charges, including 80-year-old Abdul Shakoor, who was arrested by the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Division in December 2015 for selling Ahmadiyya religious books. In 2016 an ATC sentenced Shakoor to five years’ imprisonment for propagating the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, and to an additional three years under the Anti-Terrorism Act for stirring up “religious hatred” and “sectarianism,” with sentences to run concurrently. In August a court overturned the blasphemy conviction of Ahmadi Qamar Ahmad Tahir after he had spent 21 months in prison. The authorities arrested Tahir in November 2015 for allegedly ordering the burning of a Quran at the factory where he worked as a security guard. A mob subsequently burned down the factory, an Ahmadiyya mosque, and several homes belonging to Ahmadis.

In the spring the government launched a high-profile crackdown on blasphemy on social media. In a March court order stemming from the blasphemy case against the five bloggers abducted in January, Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui directed the government to block websites containing blasphemous material. In his order, Siddiqui called blasphemers “the biggest terrorists” and warned that if the government did not take action against them, “the patience of the followers of Holy Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) may run out of control.” The following week, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called blasphemy an “unpardonable sin” and ordered authorities to apprehend and prosecute those who posted blasphemous material online. In April then-Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar said authorities had blocked 152 Facebook pages and put eight suspects on the country’s exit-control list. On May 10, millions of individuals received text messages from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) warning them that uploading or sharing blasphemous content on social media was a punishable offense under the law. Human rights activists decried the public awareness campaign, arguing that it would encourage more mob attacks on alleged blasphemers. In September, at the behest of the Federal Investigation Agency, an ATC reportedly indicted four individuals for posting blasphemous content online. In October the PTA reported to parliament it had “taken action” against 188 websites and blocked 3,025 websites for containing blasphemous material. In November the media reported the PTA had created an interagency committee tasked with monitoring and blocking blasphemous content online. Human rights activists expressed concern the government would use this initiative as a pretext to suppress views on the internet that differed from those of the government, including on religious issues.

In May the newspaper DAWN said that 41 of the 64 groups banned by the National Counter-Terrorism Authority for involvement in terrorism were openly using Facebook to recruit and train followers, including sectarian groups responsible for attacks on members of religious minority communities.

According to civil society and media reports, there were cases in which government mediation prevented intercommunal mob violence. In September mediation by CSOs and government officials, including a federal minister, diffused tensions over an interfaith marriage in Qaidabad, Punjab. Police also intervened on several occasions to interdict mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy.

A trial in a military court continued against two men accused of murder in the June 2016 killing of Amjad Sabri, a singer of Sufi devotional music. In addition to Sabri’s killing, Mohammad Ishaq and Mohammad Asim were charged with nine other counts of terrorism.

A bill passed by the Sindh Assembly in November 2016 criminalizing forced conversions remained pending at year’s end. The bill mandates a 21-day waiting period and a minimum age of 18 for any person wishing to convert, and it establishes a minimum sentence of five years for those convicted of forcing others to convert. On January 7, after some Muslim scholars and religious parties objected to some of the bill’s clauses, Sindh’s governor declined to ratify the bill and returned it to the Sindh Assembly for review. Religious minority activists expressed disappointment the bill had stalled and said they believed it would help protect underage girls belonging to religious minorities, who were particularly vulnerable to forced conversions through abductions, rape, and forced marriages.

In the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram, religiously significant for Shia Muslims, authorities at the federal and provincial levels restricted the movement and activities of an unknown number of clerics. According to civil society and media reports, the government targeted individuals known for exacerbating sectarian tensions. Some CSOs characterized the restrictions on clerics prior to the Ashura holiday as too broad. Provincial governments deployed hundreds of thousands of police and other security personnel to protect Shia religious ceremonies across the country during the commemoration of Ashura, which observers noted was more peaceful than in previous years.

In June, in the wake of three terrorist attacks targeting markets in the Shia majority city of Parachinar, Kurram Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Area, residents protested against the government’s failure to protect them from sectarian violence. Frontier Constabulary officers fired on the protesters, killing four persons. Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa subsequently met with members of the Shia community in Parachinar, called for an inquiry into the shooting, and announced security improvements.

According to Ahmadiyya Muslim Community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Muhammad. Representatives also stated provincial authorities prevented Ahmadis from purchasing land near the community’s headquarters in Rabwah.

According to reports, the Senate Human Rights Committee continued to debate possible procedural reforms to discourage misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws, a legislative process begun in December 2016. In August the Islamabad High Court directed parliament to amend the penal code to make the penalties for false accusations of blasphemy commensurate with those for committing blasphemy. Parliament had not acted on the court’s direction as of year’s end.

Legal observers continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, which led to some convicted persons spending years in jail before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. Lower courts reportedly continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of groups labelled extremist by the government, such as the Khatm-e-Nabuwat (“Finality of the Prophethood”) group, often threatening the defendant’s attorneys, family members, and supporters. According to observers, the general refusal of lower courts to free defendants on bail or acquit them persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely in an effort to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups labeled by the government as extremist.

The government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence in television and print media, despite a promise to do so in the 2014 NAP. Some government officials made anti-Ahmadi statements and attended events that vilified the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. In January the annual Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference was held in Lahore under the leadership of, among others, Punjab Minister of Specialized Healthcare and Medical Education Khawaja Salman Rafique and Punjab Minister of Primary and Secondary Health Khawaja Imran Nazir. Speakers called on the government to “stop the support of the Qadianis [a pejorative term for Ahmadi Muslims].” Then Federal Minister of Finance Ishaq Dar also addressed the conference and promised there would be no changes to the blasphemy laws. In February at a conference of political parties organized under the auspices of the International Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nabuwat, an organization which aims to safeguard the “finality of prophethood,” several political leaders made anti-Ahmaddiya statements, including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam President Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and Raja Zafar ul Haq, the chairman of the governing Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) party. In a meeting with Muslim clerics in October, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said Ahmadis were more dangerous to Islam than any other “non-Muslim” minority.

The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. In order to seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so as non-Muslims, despite self-identifying as Muslim. On October 2, the president signed into law a bill that changed the electoral oath to a “declaration” and abolished separate voter lists for Ahmadis. The change sparked a nationwide uproar, including a roughly three week sit-in by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) political party, which is also known as Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and whose platform centers on enforcement of the blasphemy laws. The protesters said the change in the electoral oath was tantamount to blasphemy. Speaker of the National Assembly Ayaz Sadiq issued a statement attributing the change to a “clerical error,” and former Prime Minister Sharif set up a committee within the ruling PML-N to determine the individuals responsible for the change. On October 16, parliament reversed the changes to the oath, reverting back to the original wording. As demanded by the protesters, Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid resigned. The government also agreed to other demands, including to release the protesters who had been arrested and to make a report on its investigation into the alteration of the electoral oath; in exchange, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the TLP, agreed not to issue a fatwah against Hamid. Some observers stated the government’s concessions to the TLP’s demands represented a surrender to extremism, and representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community expressed concern that the actions signaled an escalation in state-sanctioned persecution of their community.

On October 10, in a speech in the National Assembly, Member of the National Assembly Safdar Awan, son-in-law of former Prime Minister Sharif, called for Ahmadis to be banned from service in the military or civil service and for institutions named for Ahmadis to be renamed. The speech was carried live on government-run Pakistan Television. The military subsequently issued a statement affirming its commitment to nonsectarianism.

On November 29, the Karachi City Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attempt to change the electoral oath and calling for punishment of the party responsible. Jamaat-i-Islami city council member Junaid Makati, who proposed the resolution, said the attempt to change the oath was a conspiracy between the PML-N government and “Jewish elites.”

On November 24, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution demanding the government make the “finality of prophethood” a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Following the federal government’s November 25 agreement with the TLP, several hundred protesters affiliated with the TLP continued to stage a sit-in outside the Punjab Assembly to protest remarks by Punjab Law Minister Sanaullah which they said were tolerant of Ahmadis. The TLP ended its protest on December 2 after reaching an agreement with the Punjab government. While the terms of agreement were not made public, the TLP claimed the Punjab government made numerous concessions. The Punjab provincial government, however, did not confirm these claims, and observers stated there was no evidence any concessions were being implemented.

On November 30, in response to the protests, the Supreme Court issued an order that stated “there is no place in the public discourse to propagate the commission of an offense or to incite people to resort to violence. Broadcasts cannot encourage violence, extremism, militancy, or hatred.”

In December the Islamabad High Court temporarily banned television anchor Aamir Liaquat Hussain from appearing in the media for inciting hatred and violence. The court’s ruling came in response to a petition that accused Hussain of promoting religious intolerance by issuing Islamic fatwas on the air that led to incidents of sectarian violence.

The government continued efforts to enforce its previous bans on the activities of, and membership in, some religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist. The Ministry of Interior maintained a multitier schedule of groups that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed. The schedule included individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed.

The government continued to fund and facilitate Hajj travel for most Muslims, but Ahmadis were unable to participate in the Hajj, community leaders said, because of passport application requirements to list religious affiliation and denounce the Ahmadiyya prophet.

According to representatives of minority religious groups, the government continued to allow organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.

According to civil society activists and monitoring organizations, some public school textbooks continued to include derogatory statements about minority religious groups, including Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Christians. Civil society leaders said the teaching of religious intolerance remained widespread, and although multiple groups had presented recommendations for the removal of discriminatory content, the federal government had not taken the initiative to support the recommended changes. Monitoring groups said textbooks used in all four provinces for grades one to 10 continued to contain religiously intolerant and biased material against Hindus, Christians, and other religious minorities. These groups reported there were initiatives by some provincial authorities to remove discriminatory material and promote tolerance through the textbooks, such as the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board’s effort to incorporate short stories promoting peace and harmony into Urdu textbooks, which started in 2016 and ran until March when the initiatives ended. Books published after March did not explicitly include materials derived from the effort but did include some passages added as part of the initiatives. Punjab authorities also added a separate chapter on religious minority groups to some textbooks. While private schools remained free to choose whether or not to offer religious instruction, they were reportedly under government pressure to teach Islamic studies. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools.

There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine. Increasing government supervision of madrassahs remained a component of the NAP, and there was evidence of continued government efforts to increase regulation of the sector. According to press reports, provincial authorities continued campaigns to geotag madrassahs. Press reports also indicated provincial authorities continued efforts to close madrassahs with connections to terrorism. The authorities prosecuted cases involving sectarian hate speech and restricted the movement and public sermons of some clerics accused of spreading sectarian hatred. Security analysts and madrassah reform proponents observed many madrassahs failed to register with one of five waqafs (religious endowments) or with the government, to provide to the government documentation of their sources of funding, or to accept foreign students only with valid student visas, a background check, and the consent of their governments, as required by law.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the federal Ministry of Law and Justice, as well as by the federal Ministry of Human Rights and its provincial counterparts. Religious minorities said they remained concerned that government action to address coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam was inadequate.

The National Commission for Minorities, a government committee created in 2014 with Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh representatives, met sporadically to develop a national policy for minorities. Minority activists stated the commission’s lack of a regular budget allocation and lack of an independent chairperson inhibited its development.

Some human rights groups criticized the government’s commitment to the Ministry of Human Rights 2016 Action Plan for Human Rights, particularly its provisions related to religious minorities. The plan included nine provisions for the protection of the rights of minorities, among them enforcement of laws criminalizing incitement to religious hatred and protection for places of worship for minority religious groups.

Human rights activists continued to report neither the federal nor the provincial governments had made substantial progress in implementing the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision directing the government to take measures to protect members of minority religious groups.

In January the Sindh governor returned a law passed in November 2016 establishing a Minorities Commission for the province to the Provincial Assembly for further review. The law states the 11-member commission will examine government policy and laws and make recommendations to better protect the rights of minorities in Sindh. The commission would also have the inquiry powers of a civil court, including the ability to summon witnesses and receive evidence on affidavits. The draft law remained pending at year’s end.

Religious minority community leaders continued to state that the government failed to take adequate action to protect minorities from bonded labor in the brick-making and agricultural sectors, an illegal practice in which victims were disproportionately Christians and Hindus. Such families, particularly on agricultural lands in Sindh Province, often lived without basic facilities and were prevented from leaving without the permission of farm landlords. In September the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed legislation which further amended a 2016 law prohibiting the use of child labor in the brick industry. Under the amended law, the penalty for employing children was increased from up to six months’ imprisonment and a criminal fine to up to five years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees ($4,500).

Historically, Hindu and Sikh leaders had noted the legal uncertainty surrounding the process of registering marriages for their communities created difficulties for Hindu and Sikh women in obtaining inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. The enactment of the Hindu Marriage Act in March addressed many of these problems, but media reported some Hindu community leaders expressed concern that a provision of the national bill permitting annulment of Hindu marriages could be used to legitimize forced conversions of Hindu women. Members of the Sikh community continued to report difficulties related to the registration of marriages for their community. Some local administrative bodies continued to deny Christian and Ahmadi marriage registrations; advocates called for a new law governing Christian marriages, as the existing regulation dated to 1872. On June 19, the Lahore High Court restored a section of a law on Christian divorce that General Zia ul Haq’s government had suspended in 1981, allowing the country’s Christian community an avenue to legally divorce for reasons other than adultery.

Legal experts and NGO representatives continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights assumed primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. In addition, the country’s 18th amendment to the constitution devolved certain authorities and responsibilities for the protection of human rights and rights of religious minorities to provincial governments.

Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students needed to sign on their applications for admission to university continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government maintained Ahmadis could qualify for admission as long as they did not claim to be Muslims. Ahmadiyya community leaders reported multiple Ahmadi students had been expelled from public universities after not disclosing their religious affiliation at initial admission.

Religious minority community members stated Muslim students in public schools were afforded bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit were available for religious minority students.

Most religious minority groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. While there remained a 5 percent quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level, minority organizations said government employers did not enforce it. According to religious minority members and media reports, provincial governments in Punjab, Sindh, and KP also failed to meet such quotas for hiring of religious minorities into the civil service.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions. Although there were no official obstacles to advancement of minority religious group members in the military service, they said in practice non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

Ahmadiyya leaders continued to report the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such. Ahmadiyya leaders continued to report the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of prophethood” in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis did not try to participate in the political process. On December 16, media reported police in Sialkot, Punjab, had arrested six Ahmadis for listing themselves as Muslims on their identity cards and for registering to vote as Muslims during a local 2015 election.

Religious minority leaders continued to state the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. They also stated the system effectively precluded the election of minority women, who were rarely in a position of sufficient influence with the major political parties to contend for a seat.

According to Ahmadiyya community members, authorities continued to seal or demolish Ahmadi mosques, barred construction of new mosques, and took no action to prevent attacks on mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set Ahmadi mosques on fire. In May the Lahore High Court granted bail to 37 individuals accused of participating in a December 2016 attack on an Ahmadiyya mosque in Chakwal. During the incident, one of the attackers was killed, and one of the Ahmadiyya worshippers died of a heart attack. At year’s end, 60 of the 67 attackers had been granted bail, one Ahmadi remained imprisoned on murder charges, and the mosque remained sealed. Following an attack on an Ahmadiyya procession in central Punjab in late 2016, Ahmadiyya leaders reported the community undertook no processions in 2017, on the grounds the government’s policies created conditions where Ahmadis could not safely hold processions or publicly congregate.

The government continued to deny citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, the right to travel to Israel. Representatives of the Bahai community said this policy particularly affected them because of the location of the Bahai World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – in Israel.

On December 25, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa attended a Christmas celebration at a church in Rawalpindi and expressed appreciation for the role Christians played in the country’s public institutions and armed forces.

During an April gathering to celebrate the Hindu observance of Holi, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the practice of forced conversions and affirmed the constitution guaranteed equal rights for members of all religious communities.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. The government stated on its immigration website that it continued to grant visas to foreign missionaries valid from two to five years and allowed two entries into the country per year, although only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. Non-Muslim missionaries, some of whom had been working in the country for many years, however, were either denied visas, only given four-month extensions, or received no response from immigration authorities before their visas expired. Others were allowed to remain in country while appeals of their denials were pending.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

There continued to be violence and abuses committed by armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (previously referred to as Sipah-e-Sahaba), as well as abuses by individuals and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIL-K. Data on sectarian attacks varied, as there was no standardized definition of what constituted a sectarian attack. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 231 persons were killed and 691 injured in 16 incidents of sectarian violence during the year. Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities and urged the government to fully implement its National Action Plan to combat terrorism, as well as the Supreme Court’s June 2014 order regarding protection for members of religious minority groups.

On February 16, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan, Sindh, which killed at least 88 people and injured more than 200 during a religious activity. In November the media reported the authorities had arrested a suspect in connection with the attack.

Sectarian violent extremist groups continued to target Shia houses of worship, religious gatherings, religious leaders, and other individuals in attacks resulting in at least 112 persons killed during the year. Some organizations recorded upwards of 220 Shia killed in at least 18 sectarian incidents during the year.

Terrorist groups targeted markets three times in the Shia majority city of Parachinar, Kurram Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Agency. On January 21, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami and the TTP claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that killed 25 persons and injured 87. On March 31, a suicide attack for which Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a Sunni splinter faction of the TTP, claimed responsibility killed 25 persons and injured more than 100. On June 24, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for bomb blasts that killed 67 persons and injured more than 200.

On November 29, gunmen killed two worshippers as they exited a Shia mosque in Islamabad. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami claimed responsibility for the attack.

In another attack, claimed by ISIS-K on October 6, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the shrine of Pir Rakhyal Shah, which attracts both Sunni and Shia followers, in Jhal Magsi, Balochistan, killing 21 persons and injuring 24.

On December 17, suicide bombers killed nine and injured nearly 60 members of the Christian community in a terrorist attack on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan. One of the attackers blew himself up outside the church’s main hall, where hundreds of worshippers had gathered for Sunday service, and police officers providing security for the church shot and killed another attacker. This was the first attack on a church in the country claimed by ISIS-K.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Throughout the year, unidentified attackers targeted and killed Shia, Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.

On February 26, unidentified assailants killed three members of the Shia community in Paroa, KP. Attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group increased over the past year. In at least five separate incidents, unidentified assailants targeted and killed at least 13 members of the Hazara community.

There were multiple instances of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals. On March 30, gunmen killed an Ahmadi man riding on a motorbike in Nankana Sahib, Punjab; the man’s son was injured in the attack. On April 7, unidentified gunmen on a motorbike killed an Ahmadi man walking to a mosque in Lahore. On April 18, unidentified assailants robbed and killed a female Ahmadi professor from Punjab University in Lahore. On May 3, gunmen killed an Ahmadi man while he was returning home.

On October 9, gunmen killed an Ahmadi husband, wife, and their two-year-old son in their home. Police investigated the incident as a so-called honor killing allegedly carried out by the wife’s brother and his accomplices, who were angry she had married an Ahmadi man against her family’s wishes.

There were media reports of numerous incidents of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy. In April three sisters killed a Shia man near Sialkot, Punjab, whom they had accused of committing blasphemy 13 years earlier. The victim had fled the country due to the blasphemy allegations, which his family said were due to his Shia faith, but had recently returned. Also in April in Chitral, Punjab, a mob severely beat a man inside a mosque whom they said had made blasphemous remarks. The mosque’s imam, fearing for the man’s life, handed him over to the police, who filed blasphemy charges against him. In August two assailants in Tando Adam, Sindh, killed an intellectually disabled man who had been acquitted on blasphemy charges due to his condition; authorities arrested and investigated the perpetrators who confessed to killing him because he had committed blasphemy. Also in August near Wazirabad, Punjab, a mob gathered outside a police station after authorities arrested an 18-year-old Christian for allegedly burning pages of the Quran outside a shrine. Police moved the teenager to another police station and charged him with blasphemy.

In August a Muslim student in Burewala beat to death 17-year-old Sheron Masih, who was the only Christian in his grade level; Masih had complained of bullying. Police reportedly filed charges against several of the students.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held rallies and other events to support the doctrine of the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. The events, which were often covered by English and vernacular media, featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including the incitement of violence against Ahmadis. Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against members of their community, especially after the TLP protests in October and November.

The 2016 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who was convicted of killing then-governor of Punjab Province Salman Taseer in 2011 after Taseer publicly criticized the country’s blasphemy laws, continued to elicit protests from some religious groups. In its 2015 verdict confirming Qadri’s death sentence, the Supreme Court stated criticism of the blasphemy laws was not blasphemy itself and vigilante violence was unacceptable. On January 4, police arrested 160 persons at a rally in Lahore celebrating Qadri’s assassination of Taseer. In March thousands of persons gathered at Qadri’s grave, which his family had turned into a shrine, to observe his death anniversary. Throughout the year, supporters visited the shrine to pay tribute to Qadri.

Reports continued of attempts to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam. Rights activists reported victims of forced marriage and conversion were pressured and threatened into saying publicly they had entered into the marriage of their own free will. Christian and Hindu organizations stated that girls from their communities were particularly vulnerable to forced conversions. In April according to Christian activist organizations, a 14-year-old Christian girl was abducted by a police officer, held for four months in Hafizabad, Punjab, and forcibly converted to Islam. With the assistance of civil society organizations, the family won back custody of her. A criminal case against the girl’s abductor was pending at year’s end.

According to press reports, on June 6, four armed men kidnapped at gunpoint a Hindu teenager in Mirpukhas, Sindh. On June 8, the girl’s parents led a protest demanding her return and alleging the kidnappers were receiving protection from politically-connected individuals in the locality. At year’s end, the case was ongoing, and civil society organizations believed the girl remained in the custody of her kidnappers.

Christian activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants.

Observers reported that some coverage in the English-language media of issues facing religious minorities had improved, but that journalists continued to face threats for covering these issues. In June Rana Tanweer, a journalist who covered minority rights issues for the newspaper Express Tribune, survived an assassination attempt when an assailant tried to run him over with a car; Tanweer escaped with a broken leg. A month earlier, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, Tanweer’s landlord received a call from someone who pressured him to evict Tanweer for his alleged “anti-Islam” stance. Several days later, someone spray-painted a message on Tanweer’s home that read, “Qadiani supporter Rana Tanweer is an unbeliever who deserved to be killed.”

Observers reported that Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media used inflammatory language or made inappropriate references to minorities. Throughout the year commentators on private television channels and editorials in the vernacular press stated Ahmadis were “deserving of death” and labelled the community “enemies of Pakistan” and “blasphemers.” For example, on October 3, Orya Maqbool Jaan said on his program on the private Neo TV channel that Ahmadis could be beheaded with impunity.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups reported they continued to be hesitant to speak in favor of religious tolerance because of the societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.

There continued to be reports of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols, which police failed to prevent. According to media reports, an unidentified assailant threw a hand grenade in a church in Quetta, Balochistan, on October 7. No congregants were injured in the attack; there were no arrests for the incident by year’s end.

In September the Pakistan Ulema Council, dominated by clerics from the Deobandi movement within Sunni Islam, issued a code of conduct for Muharram. The code of conduct specifically condemned sectarianism and urged the Sunni community to respect Shia processions around the Ashura holiday.


Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18 million (July 2017 estimate). At year’s end there were more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees, primarily Sunni, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries and 6.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates approximately 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

U.S. government estimates put the Christian population at 10 percent of the overall population, although media and other reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of the civil war suggest the Christian population is now considerably lower. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, and NGOs estimate fewer than 20 Jews remain in the country. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country. Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces. Twelver Shia generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. The majority of Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also have a presence in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus. The highest concentration of Ismailis is in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic (or Uniate) churches (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast section of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has since moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Governorate of Suweida, where they constitute the majority of the local population. Yezidis, found primarily in the northeast, were previously also in Aleppo.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in these areas there is often a breakdown in law and order leaving militias, often sectarian in nature, in a dominant position. In areas of the country controlled by opposition or terrorist groups, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb the public order. There is no official state religion, although the constitution states the religion of the president of the republic is Islam. The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.

The constitution states “[issues] of personal status of the religious communities is protected and respected,” and “the citizens are equal in rights and duties, without discrimination among them on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it has violated their rights.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism. Neither the government nor the state security court defined the parameters of what constituted “Salafist” activity or explained why such activity is illegal. Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.

The law restricts proselytizing and conversion. It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to Islamic law. The law recognizes conversion to Islam. The penal code prohibits “causing tension between religious communities.”

By law all religious groups must register with the government. Recognized religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.

All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.

Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools. There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula. Religious instruction covers Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Members of religious minority groups may choose to attend public schools with Muslim or Christian instruction, or attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their affiliation with Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce. A Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman may legally marry a Muslim man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in a Muslim cemetery unless she converts to Islam. If a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the law states the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges. In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence. A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce. Additionally, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. When a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to an inheritance from her husband unless she converts to Islam.

An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation. Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Summary paragraph: There were continued reports the Alawi-led government’s war with opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among Syria’s majority Sunni population. According to civil society activists and journalists, the government continued to engage in extrajudicial killings and detentions. In May the U.S. released satellite imagery showing evidence of a crematorium within the Sednaya military prison compound which would enable the government to dispose of the bodies of executed prisoners, the vast majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to detain tens of thousands of citizens without affording them due process, and there were reportedly multiple forced disappearances of Sunnis and continued massive and systematized deaths in state-controlled detention facilities. Sources reported government-affiliated forces and militias seized homes in majority Sunni communities, after “reconciliation” agreements forcefully displaced entire communities. Sources reported the regime intended to alter the demographics of the evacuated communities by installing non-Sunni residents, whom they viewed as supportive of the regime’s rule.

According to some analysts, religious and sectarian factors were present on all sides of the civil war, but there were also other factors underlying the violent competition for political power and control of the central government in Damascus, and violence committed by the government against opposition groups and civilians inherently had sectarian and nonsectarian elements. According to many observers, the government’s policy, aimed at eliminating opposition forces threatening its power, was sectarian in its effects, although it was not motivated primarily by sectarian ideology.

In an August speech, President Bashir Asad described enemies of Syria in religious terms. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks that destroyed or damaged places of worship and religious cultural property, including 63 churches and numerous mosques. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.

According to numerous reports, government and partner forces – including Iranian-backed Shia militias composed mostly of foreigners – killed, arrested, and physically abused individuals in attacks on opposition-held territory as part of their effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups, as well as terrorist groups, and to intimidate Sunni communities that may support opposition groups. According to the SNHR, the civilian death toll for the year was 10,204 and approximately 207,000 between March 2011 and March 2017. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry stated Sunnis accounted for the majority of civilian casualties and detainees. The government, according to the UN and press, resumed its chemical weapons attacks on civilians, with an April bombing in predominantly Sunni Idlib Province involving sarin that killed at least 83 civilians.

Civil society activists and journalists reported the government continued to engage in extrajudicial executions and detentions. In May the U.S. released satellite imagery and evidence the government installed a crematorium within the Sednaya military prison compound which could be used to dispose of the bodies of executed prisoners with little evidence. The vast majority of tortured and executed prisoners were Sunni Muslims, which analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition. The government reportedly continued to imprison, and on some occasions summarily execute, individuals it deemed to be associated with opposition groups, including armed opposition groups, civil society activists, and media activists, including those whose religious programming did not meeting government criteria. Many citizens previously reported missing were eventually accounted for in prisons, while others were later determined to have been executed by the regime.

Some opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist groups in statements and publications and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element. NGO sources also stated the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from Sunni extremist groups, while simultaneously bolstering radical Sunni groups and controlling the activities of religious groups. As a result, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists, according to international media reports.

Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to detain tens of thousands of citizens without due process. The UN and human rights organizations reported the continued detention as well as the disappearance and forcible conscription of civilians, IDPs, and fighters during and following the government’s December 2016 assault on rebel-held Aleppo. Sources stated the abuses reported by a UN COI, including multiple forced disappearances and continued massive and systematized deaths in state-controlled detention facilities, remained ongoing. The SNHR reported at least 6,500 cases of arbitrary arrests, the vast majority of detentions Syrian government forces committed during the year. Human rights groups and opposition activists stated the majority of detainees the government took into custody were Sunni Arabs.

By the end of the year, the government and its partners had placed the Sunni-majority Damascus suburb of East Ghouta under a tight siege. A UN report stated that 1,114 children in East Ghouta were suffering from various forms of malnutrition, including the most dangerous form, “severe acute malnutrition.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated in October 2017 the siege of Eastern Ghouta was an outrage and he called on the parties to the conflict to allow badly needed food and medical supplies into the area. Subsequent regime military operations in East Ghouta killed and wounded thousands of civilians, causing tens of thousands to flee the fighting and forcing tens of thousands more to evacuate under terms of surrender.

The UN COI, SNHR, and Syrian activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the regime. Analysts said this was evidenced by shifts in Homs. Groups such as the SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature. Such violence contributed to the widespread displacement of civilians.

According to media reports, the presence of foreign sectarian militias fighting on the side of the government exacerbated and sharpened the sectarian element of the war. Reports indicated the government relied on Shia foreigners from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere to target Sunni-majority opposition groups.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants residing in Iran to assist the government in its conflict against armed opposition groups. HRW reported Iran supported and trained thousands of Afghans to fight in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun Division since 2013. HRW and other sources estimated the size of the division to be up to 14,000 fighters. According to analysts the use of Shia fighters from as far as Afghanistan as soldiers in an armed conflict against a mostly Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.

According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers. It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.

Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. The banners expressed the willingness of individuals to sacrifice themselves for Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad revered in Shia Islam. In addition, Hezbollah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

The government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of a form of Islam it deemed appropriate. State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach, and booksellers were prohibited from selling literature that was against the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to academic experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and other security services, according to media and academic reports; however, the senior officer corps of the military reportedly continued to include individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.

Media and academic experts said the government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance. The official state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on the government’s fight against “takfiri terrorist organizations” throughout the year (a group is defined as takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim group as apostate). In an August speech, President Asad stated Syria was “facing a takfiri terrorist enemy the likes of which has never been seen throughout history in terms of treachery, malevolence, and hatred, an enemy backed by several regional and international parties which have been seeking for years to impose their dominance over the whole area through the gate of Syria.” According to international media reports, leaders from a number of minority religious groups, such as representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities as well as prominent Druze activists, continued to state the government had their support because it protected them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to threaten Sunnis publicly, warning against communications with foreign coreligionists and defining such communication as opposition political or military activity. For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the international religious hierarchies governing some religious groups. It continued to prohibit, however, contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the opposition of serving “the Zionist project.” The government repeated its claim a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s conflict.

The government continued to allow foreign Christian faith-based NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering. It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Ministry of Religious Endowments to operate. Security forces continued to question these organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.

The SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in the destruction of or damage to places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques, in addition to targeted attacks against places of worship the regime claimed were occupied by armed actors. On November 8, regime warplanes fired missiles in front of al Kabir Mosque in Kafr Batna town in eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, damaging it severely, according to the SNHR. The government continued to state the mosques it targeted were being utilized by opposition forces for military purposes.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Summary paragraph: Nonstate actors, including ISIS, HTS – a merger of Salafist groups but mostly al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (JAN), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization – and other groups, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and other governments, controlled portions of the country’s territory in opposition to, or support of, the government. These nonstate actors were responsible for killings, physical mistreatment, kidnappings, and arrests of members of religious groups and those they suspected of opposing their rule. Particularly ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law. On April 15, HTS targeted the predominantly Shia Aleppo district of Al-Rashidin, with a car bomb that killed 96 individuals, including 68 children. Following the attack, dozens of persons went missing, with armed groups taking at least 17 civilians hostage, according to a September COI report. Many rebel groups self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. Armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God.

As of December Coalition forces and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed. As such, ISIS no longer governed over large populations and was limited in its ability to subjugate religious groups to harsh treatment. It continued, however, to operate as an insurgency and target individuals on the basis of religion on a smaller scale.

ISIS regularly targeted and massacred Shia, and used its media arms to target, demonize, and incite violence against Shia, including the May massacre of 52 civilians in the eastern district of Aqareb al-Safi. Numerous sources stated ISIS also targeted Christians throughout the country. A monitoring group reported ISIS massacred more than 100 Christians in the Christian town of Al-Qaryatayn in October, after temporarily capturing it. Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians and other minorities in areas under its control to pay a protection tax –164,000 Syrian pounds ($320) per person, according to a Christian organization – or convert to Islam, or be killed.

There were reports throughout the year by activists and local media organizations that ISIS executed and imprisoned Sunnis in areas of its control for violating regulations based on its strict interpretation of Islamic law. Materials released by ISIS depicted the executions and explained the religious justifications for them.

ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law. A September COI report noted two explosions in March near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, a well-known Shia pilgrimage site. The explosions detonated 10 minutes apart in the parking lot of the cemetery, where buses transporting pilgrims were parked. The explosions killed 44 civilians and injured 120, the majority of whom were Iraqi Shia pilgrims. HTS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the same report, on April 14, a truck bomb exploded in Al-Rashidin near Aleppo, killing evacuees from Fu’ah and Kafraya – two predominantly Shia Muslim towns – who believed the truck would deliver food. The attack killed 95 persons, including 68 children and 13 women, and injured 276, including 42 children and 78 women. Onlookers yelled sectarian insults at the Shia victims. No party claimed responsibility for the attack, and HTS and Ahrar al-Sham explicitly denied involvement. In May ISIS militants attacked the town of Aqarib al-Safiyah and attempted to attack the nearby Al-Manbouja village in Hamah, both predominantly populated by Ismaili Muslims. The attackers killed 52 civilians, the vast majority Ismailis. Survivors reported being verbally insulted by ISIS fighters on account of their religious beliefs.

Human rights groups reported unidentified militias in July killed Dr. Elias Kafarkis Isaq, an Assyrian Christian and former dean of Al-Furat University in Hasakah Province. He was the second Assyrian Christian from that university killed, and the Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights and press reports stated the crimes were part of a campaign targeting Christians.

According to a 2016 UN COI report, Ahrar al-Sham and HTS took hostages, especially women and children, to force prisoner exchanges with the government or other armed groups or for ransom. A September 2017 COI report stated, although some hostages were released during the year, up to 100 men from Adra al-Omaliyah belonging to minority religious groups remained hostages, waiting to be exchanged. Up to 175 women and children from Adra al-Omaliyah were still detained at the end of the year. The status of other individuals kidnapped because of their religious affiliation remained unknown. Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, kidnapped in 2013, remained unaccounted for at year’s end. The condition of Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, whom ISIS kidnapped in 2013 in Raqqa, remained unknown.

Thousands of the Yezidi girls and women abducted in Iraq and brought to Syria remained missing after the liberation of ISIS-held Syrian territory. Starting in 2014, ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as several Christians and Turkmen, and brought them to Syria for sale as sex slaves in markets or as rewards for ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of the captives’ religious beliefs. According to numerous sources, ISIS fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions. In interviews with the COI, the women described multiple rapes by multiple men, including incidents of gang rape. A 2016 COI report entitled They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis concluded ISIS “committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yezidis, thousands of whom are held captive in the Syrian Arab Republic where they are subjected to almost unimaginable horrors.”

Terrorist and other armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. According to opposition armed groups and media reports, this included the authorization of public executions and physical abuse of minorities accused of working with the government, particularly Alawites. In July HTS cemented its power in Idlib by defeating Ahrar al-Sham forces and monopolizing key assets in the province, including many of the local sharia courts. HTS also dissolved local councils in Idlib that were not supporting its objectives.

According to ISIS statements and other sources, in areas under its control, ISIS police forces continued to administer summary punishments for violations of the ISIS morality code. Men and women continued to face public beatings and whipping for smoking, possessing alcohol, listening to music, having tattoos, conducting business during prayer times, not attending Friday prayers, fighting, and not fasting during Ramadan.

HST continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity. In media releases, HST threatened to cleanse Aleppo of Alawites and mutilate their bodies. HST and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF.

ISIS, HTS, and some Islamist opposition groups continued to call for establishing a Sunni theocracy in press statements and media interviews.

Antigovernment protests, particularly those that occurred under the auspices of violent extremist groups, and publicity materials from antigovernment groups continued to include anti-Alawite and anti-Shia messages. HTS sponsored several protests in Idlib in which some protestors carried signs denouncing Shia Islam, and the group erected billboards in the province declaring, “The Shia are the enemies of Islam.”

Until the loss of the bulk of its territory, ISIS continued to use curricula based on its interpretation of Islam in schools it governed. According to observers, the group banned several subjects it considered contrary to its ideology, including music, art, and aspects of history it deemed nationalist. ISIS schools justified ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate and described other forms of governance as un-Islamic. The textbooks also sought to justify practices including execution, excommunication, and other punishments for apostasy, heresy, and other religious crimes, according to multiple media reports and the group’s own statements. ISIS publicized efforts to “re-educate” teachers who had previously taught in government schools. ISIS maintained a number of “Cubs of the Caliphate” youth training camps throughout its areas of control, releasing several videos documenting the training, including footage of weapons training and video of youth executing prisoners held by ISIS. According to activists from Raqqa and former educators in the city, many families refused to send their children to ISIS schools, choosing to homeschool them instead. HST and affiliated groups continued to use schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control. In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by HST, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs.

In March, according to multiple media outlets, the Democratic Union Party – the political arm of People’s Protection Units (YGP) – shut down the headquarters of rival Kurdish and Assyrian parties and announced there would be no gatherings in al-Qamishli to celebrate the Nowruz festival, which had Zoroastrian religious origins.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, cultural rivalries, and sectarian rhetoric.

Christians reported they continued to feel threatened by religious intolerance among the opposition as the influence of violent extremist groups increased. According to observers, the Sunni Islamist character of the opposition continued to drive members of the Christian community to support the government.

The self-segregation of members of internally displaced religious groups into towns and neighborhoods organized along sectarian lines continued. Internally displaced Sunnis, however, reportedly continued to relocate to traditional Alawite areas along the coast.

Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversion relatively rare, especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions banned by law. They also reported societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice openly their new religion.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the opposition’s primary political umbrella organization, and the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC), an opposition umbrella organization responsible for negotiating on behalf of the opposition with the regime, continued to condemn attacks and discrimination against religious groups, both by the government and by extremist and terrorist groups. Many members of the political opposition openly called for an inclusive and democratic state, in which religious minorities would have freedom to practice their faiths. The SNC’s blueprint for reaching a political solution to the conflict called for a six-month negotiating process leading to a single transitional governing body responsible for overseeing a single, decentralized state that would oversee an 18-month negotiation on constitutional reform and election. The SNC’s blue print commits to a democratic, nonsectarian state.


Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28 million (July 2017 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), belonging either to the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or the Zaydi order of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population to be Sunni and 35 percent Zaydi. There is an indeterminate number of Twelver Shia (residing mainly in the north), Ismailis, and Sufis. Jews, Bahais, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The Jewish community is the only indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Media sources suggest that only 50 Jews remain in the country.

Ismailis include both the al-Makarem and Bohra communities. Following the outbreak of the conflict, many Bohras fled the country for India.

Due to the continuing political instability and violence in the country, the once sizable population of Indian nationals continued to decrease. There is no firm estimate of persons of Indian origin or who practice Hinduism residing in the country; one source suggests the population of Indian nationals is less than 3000.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law,” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the president must be Muslim (“practices his Islamic duties”); however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are absolved from the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” to be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion, and prescribes up to five years if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law the government must authorize construction of new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic doctrine as an objective of secondary education. Sunni and Shia students are taught from the same curriculum in public schools.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government under President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi remained in exile in Saudi Arabia and did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country. Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher and various members of the cabinet, however, maintained an intermittent presence in Aden.

Prior to the outbreak of the military conflict in March 2015, Customs and Ministry of Culture officials prohibited the importation of foreign religious publications after determining they were “religiously objectionable,” because they were critical of Islam. The authorities allowed the importation of other religious books, including the Bible, for personal use but not for sale. Due to the conflict, there was not sufficient information on the situation during the year.

Prior to the outbreak of the current military conflict, the government permitted the use of Hindu temples in Aden and Sana’a as well as existing church buildings for religious services of other denominations. Due to the conflict, information on the use of these religious sites was not available during the year.

The government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in some private schools, although the government said it was aware of the forced introduction of Zaydi Shia teaching into the curriculum of schools within Houthi areas of control. Some Muslim citizens attended private schools that did not teach Islam. Most non-Muslim students were foreigners and attended private schools. A report by Global Partnership for Education released in May stated that 90 percent of Yemeni schools were still open, with the government trying to continue the education of over five million children and youth, 73 percent of the student population. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, schools were open for only a few hours a day in many areas and over 2,000 were closed because of damage or because displaced persons or armed groups had occupied them.

Since March 2015, the Hadi-led government has engaged in a military conflict with Houthi rebels and with forces loyal to former President Saleh. The rebels established control over Sana’a in September 2014, and expanded their control to take over large portions of the country. Following house arrests and other measures taken by the Houthis against government members, senior government officials fled and reconstituted the country’s government in Saudi Arabia, where it requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and other states in the region to defeat the rebels. The civil conflict has been accompanied by sectarian violence. Terrorist groups AQAP and ISIS, as well as other militias and separatist groups, continued to contribute to the violence.

Saudi Arabia and a coalition of other states continued air and ground operations against Houthi rebels. Saudi-led Coalition airstrikes damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings, according to NGOs and media. On January 6, an airstrike hit a mosque in Arhab District in Sana’a, which was reportedly empty at the time. On February 15, also in Arhab District, an airstrike struck a house, killing six civilians who were participating in a funeral ceremony.

On March 17, Houthi rebels launched two rockets at a mosque inside a military camp in Marib Province, killing 22 individuals during Friday prayers. In April media reported a progovernment NGO organized protests in Taiz, Marib, and Aden Provinces in opposition to the Houthis’ targeting of mosques. The NGO said Houthi rebels had destroyed 750 mosques in Yemen during the conflict.

According to the UN, Bahai community members in Sana’a faced a “persistent pattern of persecution,” including arrest orders and pressure to recant their faith. According to NGO reports, in April Houthi authorities in Sana’a issued arrest orders for at least 25 Bahais on charges related to their religion, including propagation of the Bahai Faith. The authorities had previously arrested many of these individuals in 2016 after a religious gathering, according to civil society reports. At least one individual detained with the group of Bahais in 2016 remained imprisoned without due process. The Houthi-controlled NSB detained multiple Bahais in areas under their control through June. Five of these individuals, including Walid Ayyash, a prominent community member seized while driving from Ibb to Al-Hudaydah, remained in custody at year’s end. Other Bahais reportedly feared arbitrary arrest and took measures to avoid attention. On May 15, hundreds of demonstrators marched in front of the Specialized Criminal Prosecution building in Sana’a to protest the detentions. In late October Houthi security forces raided a Bahai gathering in Sana’a, arresting Akram Ayyash, Walid Ayyash’s brother. The whereabouts of Walid Ayyash and seven other Bahais detained in April remained unknown at year’s end.

Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Bahai community member imprisoned by the NSB since 2013 and accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel, remained in detention. Bahai representatives said he was being held in poor conditions with limited access to medical care or family visits and he had been tortured.

In September unidentified militants released Indian Catholic priest Tom Uzhunnalil, whom they had kidnapped during an attack on a nursing home in Aden in 2016. In a video posted in May, Uzhunnalil said his health was deteriorating, and he called for help securing his release. The Government of India confirmed Uzhunnalil returned to India in September.

Prior to the outbreak of the military conflict, Christian community representatives reported increased scrutiny by Houthi rebels, leading them to be more discreet, although they continued to wear religious attire that identified them as members of the community.

In northern areas traditionally under Zaydi control, there were reports of continued Houthi efforts to impose their religious customs on non-Zaydi residents, including by banning music and requiring women to wear full veils.

New textbooks issued during the year by Houthi authorities promoted sectarian messages, jihadi extremism, and isolation from the outside world. Translated portions of the textbook include sentences such as “Damnation be on the Jews” and “America is the biggest Satan.” The Quranic Culture Book for third graders, authored by Mohammed Badraddeen, featured the words “America” and “Israel,” surrounded by the words: “Our enemy, the head of evil, and the biggest Satan.”

According to media, these developments coincided with a significant increase in sectarian propaganda in the lead-up to the September 21 parade and celebration in Sana’a commemorating the Houthi revolution. Messaging on billboards and in mass media outlets (including Radio Sana’a) increasingly focused on Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s divine right to rule as a descendent of the Prophet. Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi continued to use sectarian rhetoric. Abd al-Malik al-Houthi again stated there was Israeli involvement in the Saudi-led coalition campaign against Houthi rebels in speeches featuring anti-Semitic slogans.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press reporting, an unknown gunman killed a law student in Aden in May because of his membership in a cultural club established by secularists. Local armed forces blocked the funeral procession to prevent the student’s burial in the city cemetery. Members of the club said they received threats from individuals accusing them of being atheists and that local imams had publically called them infidels.

Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print. The slogan on the Houthi flag states, “God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.

Ismaili Muslims continued to complain about discrimination.

According to the Government of India, the Indian community continued to be able to engage in religious practice. The Indian Association in Aden continued to manage the Mataji Temple and held services once a month. A separate crematorium in Aden for Hindus continued to function.