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Albania

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent.  Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community.  Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, all religions are equal, and the state has the duty to respect and protect religious coexistence.  It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups.  According to the constitution, relations between state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression.  It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private.  The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate or excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or prohibited from doing so.  It prohibits political parties or other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred.  The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice.  The law specifies the State Committee on Cults, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding.  The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.

The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but a religious group must register with the district court as a nonprofit association to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and exemption from certain taxes.  The registration process entails submission of information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, identities of its founders and legal representatives, nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g., government ministries and civil society organizations), address of the organization, and a registration fee of 1,000 lek ($9).  A judge is randomly assigned within three to four days of submission to adjudicate an application, and the decision process usually concludes within one session.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH.  These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities.  A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time.  This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011.  There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

The law requires the ATP to address claims by religious groups for properties confiscated during the communist era.

The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits religious instruction, but not the teaching of religion as part of a humanities curriculum.  Private schools may offer religious instruction.  Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages.  By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards.  Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox groups operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities.  Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective.  For instance, Beder University offers undergraduate and graduate programs in Islamic Studies.  The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.    

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

Government Practices

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support remained at 109 million lek ($1.02 million), the same as in 2017 and the previous year.  The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 28 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 24 percent.  The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff.  The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.

The government implemented an April 2017 decision to subsidize the price of electricity and water for places of worship as a means of indirect financial support for religious communities.  Leaders of the five main religious communities confirmed they were paying a lower price for electricity and water.

The VUSH reported that, although there was still no formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, the State Committee on Cults provided a written commitment to extend financial support to evangelical Christian churches.  The Cults Committee stated it submitted VUSH’s request for financial support to the government.  The VUSH, the Orthodox Church, and the AIC expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them.  The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets had shown indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities.

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built during the 1990s.  The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that from 2014 through September it legalized 330 religious buildings, including 104 Catholic churches, 153 mosques, and 47 tekkes.  The Orthodox Church reported ALUIZNI approved only two full and two partial legalizations out of the Church’s 23 requests.

The ATP acknowledged the slow pace in adjudicating claims, attributing it to the large volume of files – 551 cases – under review.  The ATP reported it rejected 17 claims during the year, which claimants may challenge in court.  The law grants 10 years to execute a compensation order from the ATP – awarding the property in dispute, monetary compensation, or different property – from the date the order is finalized.  In response to a Constitutional Court declaration that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims.  ALUIZNI reported that, between 2012 and 2018, it compensated the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, AIC, and Bektashi for land illegally occupied by builders.

The Orthodox Church reported the ATP had reviewed only 10 percent of the 890 properties for which the Church had submitted claims.  The Church expressed its concern about delayed court proceedings and said the State Advocate, an institution in the Ministry of Justice that provides government institutions with legal counsel and representation, appealed the few court rulings that favored the Church.

Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, three in Permet, and one in Elbasan.  The government reportedly legalized 31 tekkes during the year.  The Bektashi community said it continued to have problems with the local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, noting the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption.

The Bektashi stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title over the course of several years for numerous properties that the Bektashi said they obtained through a court ruling.  The Bektashi community said it brought a complaint to the Ministry of Justice and Office of the Prime Minister, but had not received a response.

The AIC reported the unlawful expropriation of some of its land, citing corruption in the judiciary as the cause.  For example, the AIC claims it owned land near the Trade Chamber building in Tirana but said it was transferred in a corrupt judicial holding to another entity.  The other entity exchanged the land claimed by the AIC for two parking garages, further alienating title from the AIC.

VUSH members continued to report difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct places of worship due to local government tax assessments and regulations.  They said they continued to rent existing buildings instead.

The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering its property with the local registration office in Korca, and the registration office in Tirana did not provide one of the VUSH’s organizations with a foundation blue print.  The VUSH filed a complaint challenging the Tirana refusal, but said the city had not responded by year’s end.

VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes.  The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position.  The AIC paid the locally imposed fees for its entities located in Tirana.

Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a new, cross-thematic curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students.  They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting, and the teachers slated to provide the instruction did not have training in theology.

As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not adopted regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.

A State Committee on Cults census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related NGOs, and 40 centers.  The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three.  The Catholic Church does have any associated NGOs, foundations, or centers, while the VUSH has 158.

In April Prime Minister Edi Rama warned in a speech that Russia was intent on radicalizing Muslims in the country and urged the European Union not “leave a space for other countries to fill.”  (The country is seeking EU accession.)  He criticized European politicians for stirring anti-Muslim sentiment.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year.  It inducted the VUSH into the Council as its fifth member, named Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (head of the Orthodox Church) as the council’s chairperson, and addressed various administrative matters.

In July the Orthodox Academy in Shen Vlash-Durres became part of Logos University, a private institution funded by the Orthodox Church.

In May an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana discussed topics that included interreligious harmony as a factor of social stability and policies for managing religious diversity.

On October 25, the Polish government presented an award to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony.

Several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in religious organizations.

Angola

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2014 national census, approximately 41 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 38 percent Protestant.  Individuals not associated with any religious group constitute 12 percent of the population.  The remaining 10 percent is composed of animists, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, and other religious groups.  While the 2014 census reported there were an estimated 103,000 Muslims in the country, one leader of a Muslim organization stated there could be as many as 800,000, including an unknown number of Muslim migrants mainly from North and West African countries.  There are approximately 350 Jews, primarily foreign residents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the state as secular and prohibits religious discrimination.  The constitution requires the state to protect churches and religious groups as long as they comply with the law.  The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship, and recognizes the right of religious groups to organize and carry out their activities as long as they adhere to the law.  The constitution permits conscientious objection for religious reasons, prohibits questioning individuals about their religious beliefs for reasons other than anonymous statistical purposes, and specifies religious rights may not be suspended even if the state declares a state of war, siege, or emergency.  It recognizes the right of prisoners to receive visits from, and correspond with, religious counselors.  The law establishes that conscientious objectors may perform civilian service as an alternative to military service.

The 2004 religious freedom law requires religious groups to register for legal recognition from the state.  Legal recognition gives religious groups the ability to purchase property collectively and use their property to hold religious events, exempts them from paying certain property taxes, and authorizes a group to be treated as an incorporated entity in the court system.  To apply for government recognition, a religious group must collect 100,000 member signatures from legal residents in at least 12 of the 18 provinces and submit them to the MJHR.  The law also requires religious groups to submit documents defining their organizational structure, methods of worship, leadership, the amount of time the group has operated in the country, and that their doctrine be in accordance with principles and rights in the constitution.

On October 16, the government issued a joint executive decree mandating all unregistered religious groups submit the necessary registration documents or cease operations by November 4.  The joint decree superseded a 2015 MJHR circular that established four ecumenical associations and required all unrecognized religious group to incorporate within one of the ecumenical associations in order to operate.

While the MJHR is responsible for registration and recognition of religious groups, oversight of religious organizations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture through its National Institute for Religious Affairs.

Religious instruction is not a component of the public educational system.  Private schools are allowed to teach religion.

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

Government Practices

On October 16, a joint executive decree revoked the 2015 MJHR circular, thereby abolishing the ecumenical associations and mandating all unregistered religious groups to submit within 30 days individual requests for recognition or cease operations.  The government began closing churches in November after the 30-day period came to an end.  At year’s end, the government reported it had closed more than 900 houses of worship, including eight mosques.  By year’s end, 94 unregistered religious groups submitted their files for recognition.  The number of officially recognized religious groups remained at 81.  At year’s end, the government had not recognized any new religious groups.

Government officials at the highest levels continued to state concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which were alleged to have exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues to worship or belong to these organizations.  In President Lourenco’s address to parliament on October 15, he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to respect freedom of religion, but stressed the government would not tolerate churches that operate solely as for-profit businesses and prey on poor and vulnerable segments of the population.

The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups officially or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally.  The Muslim community requested official recognition of its groups but was unable to meet the requirements of the 2004 law, including having 100,000 legal members and a religious doctrine aligned with the country’s constitution.  In the past, government officials had stated some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution.  The Islamic Community of Angola (COIA) as well the Islamic Foundation of Angola (FIA) requested official recognition following the October 16 joint executive decree.  According to COIA, there were 69 unregistered mosques in the country.

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

On November 6, the government launched the nationwide Operation Rescue law enforcement campaign to combat criminality, including the operation of unlicensed religious groups.

Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets continued to accuse the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely.

On December 1, there was a protest in Luanda against the closing of churches under Operation Rescue organized by the Order of Evangelical Pastors of Angola (OPEA).  OPEA stated the government’s closure of churches violated freedom of religion and involved the use of excessive force and coercive power.  OPEA also said police engaged in violence against pastors, some of whom police arbitrarily detained, and violated the sanctity of their churches.  The leader of COIA said Operation Rescue violated the exercise of freedom of religion because eight mosques were closed despite the fact that COIA submitted registration documentation by November 4, in accordance with the new joint executive decree.  Pastors in Lubango from the Church of the Christian Coalition in Angola and Christian Vision Church criticized the government’s failure to consult religious leaders before abolishing the ecumenical associations.

On July 24, the Huambo Provincial Court tried and convicted 32-year-old Justino Tchipango, deputy leader of the Light of the World religious group, and sentenced him to 18 years in prison for the killing of nine police officers during clashes in 2015 between law enforcement and followers of the religious group in Mount Sumi, Huambo Province.

The leader of the Light of the World religious group, Jose Kalupeteka, sentenced to 28 years in prison in 2016 by the Huambo Provincial Court for the killing of nine police officers, appealed to the Supreme Court, but there was no decision on the appeal at year’s end.  On December 18, authorities transferred Kalupeteka from prison in Benguela to his native province of Huambo at the request of his family, which along with civil society had requested the transfer since his sentencing.  Civil society groups maintained Kalupeteka’s trial and conviction were politically motivated and called on the government to open an independent investigation during the year.

On July 30, the Supreme Court invalidated a 2015 decree issued by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights recognizing the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World as the only legitimate Tocoist church in the country.  The court ruled it is not the role of the MJHR to unify the different religious denominations in the country, but rather only to ensure religious groups obey the law.

On January 8, President Lourenco announced the government would allow Catholic radio station Ecclesia to extend its signal beyond Luanda Province to other provinces.  Radio Ecclesia submitted a request to operate nationwide in 2009, but the previous government never approved the request.  During the year, Radio Ecclesia began to operate in several additional provinces.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups, while they also acknowledged the need for greater religious understanding and interfaith dialogue.

Leaders of unrecognized churches criticized the October joint executive decree for terminating the ecumenical associations, shutting down places of worship, and detention of members of those congregations during Operation Rescue.

Journalists and human rights organizations criticized the conviction of four young Muslims in 2017 on terrorism charges and the 2016 murder conviction of Jose Kalupeteka, leader of the Light of the World religious group, arguing that in both cases the trials were politically motivated and marred by religious bias.  Activists urged the government to reopen the cases.

Armenia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies with the AAC.  Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, members of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, pagans, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims.  According to an International Republican Institute poll released in October, 94 percent of the country’s population identify as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent as Catholic, 3 percent other, and 1 percent none.  According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 Jews in the country.

Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats, and Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north.  Most Jews, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Orthodox Christians reside in Yerevan, along with a small community of Muslims.  Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.  This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private.  The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health, and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.  The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state.  It recognizes “the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.”  The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred.  It allows conscientious objectors to military service to perform alternative civilian service.

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion.

By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity.  The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts).  The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.

To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.”  It also must be “free from materialism and…[be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities.  The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.”  The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities.  A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($410) to detention for up to two months.

The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of the state and local governments.

The law prohibits a police employee and employees of the National Security Service, service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, penitentiary service, or rescue service from being a member of a religious organization; however, the law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization.  The law prohibits members of police, military, and National Security Service, as well as prosecutors, customs officials, diplomats, and other national, community, and civil servants, from using their official positions for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them.  The law also prohibits police, prosecutors, and other state and civil servants from conducting other religious activities while performing official duties.  While the law defines a “religious organization” as an association of citizens established for professing a common faith as well as for fulfilling other religious needs, it provides no definition for “religious associations.”  A military service member may not establish a religious association.  If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during the military service.

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature.  Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice.

The law allows the AAC free access to, and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution.  The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.

The law mandates public education be secular, and states “religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law.  While adding an HAC course in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course is mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.

The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of their teachers.  The Church may nominate candidates to teach the courses, although the teachers are state employees.  The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions.  Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities, but not within the premises of state educational institutions.

The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on religious views of employees.

The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service:  alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months, or alternative labor service for 36 months.  Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense.  Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred through violence, public statements, or the mass media and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($410 to $1,030) to prison terms of between two and six years.

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

Government Practices

On March 30, Epress.am, an independent online outlet focused on human rights reporting, reported that police officers from the town of Hrazdan attempted to pressure a youth who identified as atheist to “return” to the AAC.  According to the report, unidentified police officers, under false pretenses, took the youth to the Children’s Support Center to meet with a psychologist, where he was held overnight.

Starting in June, the “New Armenia, New Patriarch” initiative group, comprising AAC self-identified secular activists and two former members of the AAC clergy, protested and demanded the resignation of Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.  On June 6, the group made a statement accusing Catholicos Karekin II of weakening the AAC and of “submitting the country to sects, homosexuals, atheists, and opportunists.”  On July 14, protesters blocked the Catholicos’s vehicle at the Gndevank monastery complex in the Vayots Dzor Region and blocked him as he tried to walk away from the venue.  Protesters insulted him in the presence of police.  According to an AAC priest from the Vagharshapat Cathedral, in addition to pushing and pulling him, the protesters restricted the Catholicos’ freedom of movement and threatened to lock him in the monastery.  On July 15, on Facebook Livestream, Prime Minister Pashinyan described these developments as an internal church matter into which the government should not interfere and urged the clergy to discuss and find a solution to those internal disagreements.  He also emphasized the government’s role in upholding the law, stating he was not satisfied with police actions, which he had observed in videos of the incident.  The prime minister stated he had tasked police to examine carefully the Vayots Dzor incident and assess whether the protesters’ actions were justified.  According to the police press service, the police chief instructed officers to investigate the incident and assess police actions; however, according to the AAC representative in Echmiatsin, police dropped the case because they said there was no threat to the Catholicos’ life.

On July 6, the same group of activists broke into the AAC chancery in Echmiatsin, which includes the Catholicos’ residence and offices, and staged around-the-clock protests.  According to an AAC priest, in response to the Church’s request for police assistance, police initially stated that churches and monasteries were public spaces and they could not remove the protesters.  After three days, however, police removed them.  The activists continued to hold occasional rallies in downtown Yerevan and threatened to track all of the Catholicos’ movements.

On May 8, the National Assembly elected as prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who had led protests against former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan that led to Sargsyan’s resignation on April 23.  On several occasions, Pashinyan reiterated that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church affairs.  The new government indefinitely halted the process of adoption of a package of laws called “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” initiated by the former government.  According to religious freedom experts and many members of the religious community, the most recent version of the draft package, published in November 2017, sought to control religious organizations, including by banning religious expression under certain circumstances and banning foreign funding of religious organizations.  The draft also included mandatory public reporting, with the possibility of suspending an organization for failure to report.  Representatives of evangelical Protestant churches said government authorities could selectively apply such provisions to target “unwanted” minority religious groups.

According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the community, in December 2017 and held him until July on what members of the community said were religious grounds.  In July the trial court judge released him on bail.  His trial continued at year’s end.  Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights lawyers said they were concerned about the case, including the surveillance of members of the Baha’i community preceding Manasyan’s arrest.

In early September there were media reports that minority religious “sects” infiltrated a school in Yelpin village in Vayots Dzor Region, which caused a number of parents to refuse to send their children to the school.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, after a group of four teachers filed a police report stating the school principal was involved in corruption, the latter started a smear campaign against the teachers, leading to local activists and council members accusing the teachers of being members of religious “sects.”  Activists demanded the teachers’ dismissal, stating they could “indoctrinate” the students.  Once it became clear that three of the four teachers were AAC followers and that the other teacher was a member of an evangelical Protestant church, the latter became the sole target of the protests, even though the activists admitted they had no proof she was preaching or proselytizing during school activities.  Because of the boycott, the school cancelled all but one of the teacher’s classes, resulting in reduction of her pay.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, which represented the teacher, the latter was subject to reprisal and discrimination because of her religion.  The governor’s office stated it had taken measures to resolve the issue, explaining to the teachers of the school and the parents of the students that according to the constitution everyone enjoys freedom of conscience, religion, and belief.  The governor’s office disciplined the school principal.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, the evangelical Protestant teacher’s working conditions had not changed by year’s end.

The vast majority of public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.  According to official information, the HAC was taught in all public schools with no exceptions, although during the year there were anecdotal reports that at least one public school and two schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.  During a parliamentary briefing on November 14, the new minister of education stated the HAC course needed serious revisions.  According to the deputy minister, the reform would likely take approximately three years and would include a review of the HAC with a new focus on history of religions in compliance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools.  In the interim, beginning with the 2019-20 academic year, national minorities could choose an alternative course to the HAC.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.”  While all Yezidi schools were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended mixed schools were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections.

Several non-AAC religious groups said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and crossing that reportedly occurred during those classes and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC.  The Ministry of Education stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda.  NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC publicly voiced concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.  There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course, without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites.  According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year, six AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in four public and two private schools.

Human rights activists expressed their concern that religious elements were a consistent part of the public education process and were present even outside the AAC course.

Based on a Ministry of Education pilot program launched in 2012, school administrations had the option to include an additional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.  During the new school year, 74 schools followed this option.

According to the government, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit.  The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to the government, during the year, the AAC conducted visits, up to three times per week, to each of the 12 penitentiaries to engage in spiritual discussions with incarcerated followers and to hold services, baptisms and other religious events.  Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited some of the penitentiaries four, 16, and seven times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to face difficulties in building places of worship because of interference by local officials throughout the country.  At year’s end, three pending cases continued before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Seventh-day Adventists reported their dissatisfaction over some schools operating on Saturdays or school- or state-level examinations scheduled for Saturdays, a day of worship for the community.  The group stated, however, that on an individual level their members were able to resolve the issue.  The new government stopped the practice of designating AAC holidays as nonworking days, making the following or preceding Saturday a working day.

As of May 123 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to media analysts, following the April “velvet revolution,” private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the ousted government used religious issues as a means to denounce the new government.  According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, local troll factories, fake Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects,” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC).  These individuals alleged those religious minority groups continued to influence the new government.

In September the Word of Life Church requested the National Security Service (NSS) to open a criminal case regarding a fake Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party.  According to World of Life Church representatives, among other posts, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Word of Life Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church.  Word of Life Church representatives said they believed an organized group, mostly likely a political adversary of the new government, was behind the fake Facebook page.  On October 1, the NSS opened a criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred; at year’s end, the investigation continued and the Facebook page was still active.

Social media criticized several government officials because of their affiliation with minority religious groups.  On one occasion, a member of the Word of Life Church, appointed to a position in the new government, said he resigned following public pressure.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were incidents of verbal abuse toward the group’s members while they were publicly manifesting their religious beliefs.  In some cases, unknown individuals overturned and damaged the group’s literature display carts.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police responded promptly and appropriately, and as a result, the number of incidents had decreased.

Construction continued on Quba Mere Diwane Temple, which media called the world’s largest Yezidi temple.  Located in the small village of Aknalich, the Yezidi community said it would become the spiritual center for the country’s Yezidis.

Azerbaijan

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni.  Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokans; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is.  Other groups include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas.  Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief.  It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs.  It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality.  The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA.  The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities.  A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application.  A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration.  Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline.  Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradicts the constitution or other laws.  Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter and other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false.  Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca.  Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

The law bans activities by unregistered religious groups, which are punishable by fines or imprisonment.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity.  The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments.  The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs).  According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals.  It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities.  The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms from 15 years to life.

The law also specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.”  Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB.  Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2,900).  A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution.  Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 manat ($2,900 to $4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 to 9,000 manat ($4,100 to $5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses.  There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions.  Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad.  Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education.  If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities.  Individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government are not allowed to hold official religious positions, preach, or lead sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to the legislature.  By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity.  The law does not define “religious officials.”  The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in positions of religious leadership.  It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.

The constitution prohibits “spreading of propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity.  The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so.  In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

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

Government Practices

In July a resident attacked and wounded the then mayor of the city of Ganja, and subsequently another local assailant stabbed two police officers to death during a related demonstration against local government authorities.  In response to these events, security forces conducted operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku that resulted in the arrest of more than 60 individuals and the deaths of five.  The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest.  The Muslim Unity Movement and other civil society activists disputed the government’s recounting of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed had not resisted arrest, and that security forced targeted them.

On April 30, family members of imprisoned deputy head of the Muslim Unity Movement Abbas Huseynov said that several days prior, Huseynov had been severely beaten by prison authorities and left chained in an isolation cell for three days.  He was subsequently chained to an iron post in the prison yard and exposed to the elements from morning until night on May 10.  This followed media and human rights lawyers’ allegations in August 2017 of Huseynov’s torture in the same prison.  Authorities denied the allegations.

Authorities continued to arrest and incarcerate individuals with links to Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mix religious and political ideology.  Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat.  Human rights defenders stated the charges were pretexts, and the incarcerations were meant to prevent political activity by Islamic groups.  According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year was 68, compared with 80 in 2017.

On February 13, the Garadag District Court in Baku added two and one-half months to the 20-year prison term of Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada for possession of the Quran and religious music on electronic media in his prison cell.

On March 6, the Baku Grave Crimes Court found Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade guilty of drug possession and sentenced him to seven years in prison.  On April 8, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the verdict.  Nuruzade and others in civil society stated authorities prosecuted him for criticizing the government and publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On July 14, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes sentenced Muslim Unity Movement members Ebulfez Bunyadov to 15 years’ imprisonment and Elkhan Isgandarov to 14 years on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism.  The Baku Court of Appeals upheld the verdicts on September 26.  Activists stated the court convicted the two for their affiliation with the Muslim Unity Movement at the time of the 2015 police operation in the village of Nardaran against Taleh Bagirzada, Abbas Huseynov, and 16 other members of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On March 1, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada as well as Abbas Huseynov and 16 others on charges stemming from the 2015 police raid in Nardaran to disrupt alleged planning for a coup.  Human rights defenders said authorities ordered the operation and subsequent sweeping arrests to prevent the spread of Islamic political activism in the country.  On April 4, the Baku Court of Appeals upheld the December 2017 conviction of 12 other members of the Muslim Unity Movement in a related case.  Human rights defenders stated the government fabricated all charges in the cases to halt the spread of an Islamic political opposition in the country.

On February 13, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts of the Masalli District Court and the Shirvan Court of Appeal sentencing theologian Sardar Babayev to three years in prison for performing Namaz (ritual prayers) after having studied Islam outside the country.  He was the only individual ever prosecuted under this law.  Following Babayev’s arrest, parliament passed legislation allowing the CMB, the same body that had originally appointed him as imam in Masalli and whose members all received religious education outside Azerbaijan, to waive the law’s requirements for specific individuals.

On December 20, the Khazar District Court sentenced Telman Shiraliyev to an additional five months and 18 days in prison for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell.  Prosecutors filed the new charge days before the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.  Human rights defenders said the new charge was fabricated by authorities to prevent Shiraliyev’s release.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government continued to withhold alternative military service to conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution.  On July 6, the Barda District Court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Emil Mehdiyev for criminal evasion of military service and sentenced him to one year of probation.  On September 6, the Agdam District Court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Vahid Abilov on the same charge and also sentenced him to one year of probation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in January, 10 police officers raided a home in Lankaran where several families of Jehovah’s Witnesses were gathered.  According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, police believed the meeting was religious in nature, but it was actually a social gathering.  Police searched the home, seized personal literature, and took statements from those present.  Authorities required the men to report to a police station to give their statements while they took statements from the women at their homes.

On April 5, authorities released three individuals – Tarlan Agadadashov, Rovshan Allahverdiyev, and Ilham Hatamov – who participated in a 2012 protest seeking to abolish the ban on wearing the hijab in secondary schools who completed their six-year term of imprisonment.  On May 24, authorities pardoned and released Davud Kerimov and Elshad Rzayev for their participation in the same protest.

Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered nontraditional by the government reported authorities continued to impede their activities and subject them to harassment and fines.  Some Protestant leaders reported their continued inability to obtain legal registration prevented them from openly conducting worship services or advertising their locations to bring in new members.  Leaders of unregistered home-based churches continued to report they kept their activities discreet to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities.

On January 17, police and SCWRA officials raided the shop of Ruhiyya Mehdiyeva in Baku’s Sabunchu District and seized 400 unapproved religious books.  On February 1, the Sabunchu District Court found Mehdiyeva guilty of disseminating unauthorized religious materials and fined her 2,000 manat ($1,200).

On January 28, Ganja police raided the home of Adalat Sariyev during a meeting of 100 members of the unregistered Star in the East Pentecostal Church.  Police dispersed those present but did not file charges.

Numerous religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration.  Many groups, including Baptist communities in Zagatala and Baku, complained the government requirement to have a minimum of 50 members to register was unreasonable.

Some religious community leaders also reported the SCWRA continued its policy of applying pre-2009 registration status for such communities only to the physical structures mentioned in their pre-2009 registration forms.  While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status was prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.

The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration.  Some of the religious communities unable to reregister reported police did not accept SCWRA letters as evidence of prior registration and stated only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.

On November 8, the SCWRA reregistered the Baku community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 90 religious communities, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian.  The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 909, of which 32 were non-Muslim:  21 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.  The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.

On March 27, President Ilham Aliyev allocated 6.1 million manat ($3.59 million) to the newly established Moral Values Promotion Foundation (MVPF), under the purview of the SCWRA.  Created in October 2017, the MVPF institutionalizes the payment of salaries for imams and other mosque staff who previously subsisted primarily from local community donations.  The tax-free allowance ranged from 200 to 400 manat ($120-$240) depending on position, and the MVPF began disbursements in May.

On February 9, President Aliyev issued an executive order to establish the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology under the SCWRA.  The institute was intended to gradually replace the Baku Islamic University, which operated under the purview of the CMB since 1991.  Experts stated the establishment of the MVPF and the Institute of Theology signified a diminishment of the authority of the CMB and a tightening of SCWRA control over the Islamic education and practice in the country.

In February the SCWRA prohibited publication of the book Things Not Existing in Islam by Muslim theologian Elshad Miri, which enumerated ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage.  The SCWRA stated the book could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country and thus was not suitable for publication.  Miri submitted a legal challenge to the prohibition, and on September 18, a Baku court ruled in favor of the SCWRA and prohibited publication of the book.

The SCWRA reported that in the first half of the year, it prohibited the importation of 19 books out of 483, and the publication of 22 books out of 104.

On January 31, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider the appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community.  Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.

The SCWRA announced on its website that on April 23 it raided a home mosque in Baku’s Qaradag District in a joint operation with the State Security Service and local police.  In its statement, the SCWRA noted its concern about youth participation in the unauthorized gathering.

On September 17, regional officials of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, officers of the State Security Service secret police, and officials of unspecified other state agencies raided the home of Vugar Mammadov in Agsu.  Officials found Mammadov and two guests, Rauf Majidov and Qanbar Zeynalov, meeting for religious purposes.  Officials then charged them for violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies.  On September 21, Judge Tahir Ismayilov of Agsu District Court found all three individuals guilty.  The court fined Zeynalov 2,000 manat ($1,200) and fined the two guests 1,700 manat ($1,000) and 1,500 manat ($880).

On August 6, Sheki District Court fined Samad Alikhanov 2,000 manat ($1,200) for offering religious literature for sale without state permission.  Alikhanov appealed his fine to Sheki Appeal Court, but Judge Rafail Aliyev rejected the appeal on September 4.

On March 6, Judge Arif Ismayilov of Zaqatala District Court fined Adil Zinkiyev 1,750 manat ($1,000) for offering 19 religious and historical books and 16 pamphlets for sale outside a mosque in the village of Car on February 16.  The Islamic publications were in Avar, Russian, and Arabic; had not undergone the compulsory state censorship; and were not marked with the required State Committee sticker.  Zinkiyev appealed the fine, but on May 18, Judge Rafail Aliyev of Sheki Appeal Court rejected the appeal.

On April 12, President Aliyev attended the opening of the new Haji Javad Mosque in Baku that was constructed to replace the mosque of the same name demolished by authorities in July 2017 to construct a new road.  Prior to demolition, a group of Muslim practitioners had unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the government’s action.

On June 11, President Aliyev signed a decree allocating one million manat ($588,000) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, and 250,000 manat ($147,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews.  The decree also allocated 100,000 manat ($58,800) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Following the July attack on the then head of the Ganja Executive Committee and subsequent killing of two police officers, government-controlled media outlets published articles supporting the narrative that operations by security forces were needed to prevent Islamic extremism.  The Ganja events and government media campaign spurred debate in social media in which some users questioned the government’s recounting of the facts, stating criminals, not religious radicals, perpetrated them.  Others stated the threat of religious extremism was real and would fill the vacuum created by the government’s clampdown on civil society.

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to traditional minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered nontraditional, such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.

Bahrain

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Of the total population, citizens number 677,000, according to the local government 2017 statistics, its most recent available estimate.  According to 2017 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).

According to the government, the citizen population comprises approximately 45 percent of the total population.  The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  Most estimates from NGOs state Shia constitute a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population.  Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, and Jews together constitute the remaining 1 percent.  According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36 Jewish citizens, from six families, in the country.

Most of the foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arab countries.  Local government estimates report approximately 51 percent of foreign residents are Muslim, 31 percent Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Sikhs, 17 percent Christians (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India), and less than 1 percent Jewish.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage.  The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, the freedom to perform religious rites, and the freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.”  The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as these do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed.  All citizens have equal rights by law.  According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the grounds of gender, origin, language, or faith.  The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public sector on grounds of religion or faith.  The law also stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development to legal bodies in the event of discrimination or dismissal in the work place on the basis of religion.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” and do not prejudice the unity of the people, or arouse discord or sectarianism.

Parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives (COR) lower house, each with 40 seats.  The country holds parliamentary elections every four years.  A 2012 constitutional amendment permits the king to dissolve the COR, but it requires that he first consult with the presidents of both of parliament’s upper and lower houses as well as the head of the Constitutional Court.  The king also has the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.  The Shura Council has the power to overrule legislation by the lower house and the lower house has the authority to examine and pass legislation proposed by the king or cabinet.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”

Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJIA) to operate.  Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf, while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf.  The waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls.  Non-Muslim congregations and groups must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) to operate.  In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information.  Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI), depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities.  If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine.  The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter.  The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups, but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups are registered with the MOLSD:  the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral and Awali Anglican Church, Full Gospel Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Church Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, and the Anglican and Episcopal Church in Bahrain.  Additionally, non-Muslim, nonregistered groups include the Baha’i, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.

The penal code calls for punishment of not more than one year’s imprisonment or a fine of no more than 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses.  The Office of the Ombudsman addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf.  The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites.  According to the government, since August, MOJIA no longer funds endowment board members’ salaries.  Endowment boards, like the remainder of MOJIA employees, now fall under the Civil Service Bureau, whose oversight during the year was changed to the crown prince-led Civil Service Council.  Annually, the government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) to each endowment board.  Tithes, income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations.  The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general religious activities taking place within the country, and reviews the parliament’s draft legislation as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts.  The council comprises a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 prominent religious scholars, eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges.  The king appoints council members for a four-year term.  Independent from other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships for advanced Islamic studies for low-income students.  The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by the parliament to ensure the draft law’s compliance with sharia.  The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers.  The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs aired or broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs.  The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The king has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the prime minister.  By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from appropriate national and municipal authorities.  The law permits non-Muslim houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises.  Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Islamic religious sites, either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Waqf under the MOJIA for Islamic sites, the Survey and Restoration Directorate, and the Survey Department.  The construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, is based on a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the educational system.  The government funds public schools for grades 1-12; Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim students, and are optional for non-Muslims.  Private schools must be registered with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students.  Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE.  Outside of school hours, both Muslim and non-Muslim students engage in religious studies as their parents deem fit.

According to the MOE, no particular school of jurisprudence forms the basis of the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum.  According to the MOE, in coordination with the SCIA, a team of experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence.  According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded.  The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas.  There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad.  The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents.

According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code.  With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia.  It also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, according to sharia.  The personal status law states either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, shall govern depending on the religious affiliation of the party.  Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case.  The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract.  Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies, and civil courts make decisions for them on matters such as divorce and child custody.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates.  Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Other), but not denomination.  Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries.  It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son.  The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

In June the king signed into law amendments to the Exercising Political Rights Law of 2002, which prohibits the candidacies of leaders and members of political societies dissolved by a final court order.  The law excludes former members of predominantly Shia Wifaq political society as well as other parties, whose membership is not predominantly Shia, including the Wa’ad political society.  The new law also prohibits felons and anyone previously convicted and sentenced to more than six months in prison from running for office.  On July 3, the king signed an amendment to the Law on Associations, Social and Cultural Clubs, Private Bodies Working in the Field of Youth and Sports, and Private Institutions that prevents members of dissolved opposition groups, such as Wifaq and Wa’ad, from serving on the board of directors of nongovernmental and civil society organizations, stipulating that an NGO board member must be able to continue to enjoy “the entirety of his civil and political rights.”

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations.  Organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside of prison.

The country is party to the ICCPR with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way ” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members.  The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics.  Authorities arrested Shia cleric Isa Al Mo’min on February 4 for “inciting hatred against the government” during a Friday sermon and sentenced him to three months in prison.  International and local NGOs reported the police summoned more than 25 individuals, including clerics, in the lead-up to, as well as after, the September 20-21 Ashura commemoration, the most significant day of the Shia religious calendar.  Based on reports it received, AI said that many of those detained were reportedly under investigation for inciting hatred against the regime and more than 15 clerics and lay assistants among them were “interrogated for the content of their sermons.”  The police held many individuals overnight; others were detained and released thereafter.  According to local reports, of those summoned, authorities detained nine for varying periods ranging from one day to over a month pending investigation.  As of October 30, none remained in custody.

AI stated that prior to the November parliamentary elections, security forces carried out a series of arbitrary detentions of activists and religious figures suspected of supporting political opposition to the monarchy.  On October 12, AI received reports that authorities detained approximately a dozen protestors in the village of Karrana and held them for approximately one month for unlawful assembly.  On November 4, security forces entered approximately 10 private homes in the Shia majority town of Karbabad and detained 16 individuals, seven of them minors.  In November AI received reports of the re-establishment of police checkpoints in the majority Shia village of Arad, the neighborhoods of al-Dair and Samahij, which have notable Shia concentrations, and the religiously mixed locality of Hamad Town.  Several internal checkpoints and roadblocks remained in place in the mostly Shia town of Sanabis.  On July 11, the government removed concrete barriers, barbed wire, and police checkpoints that had previously restricted entry into the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz.  Local Shia continued to state that authorities prevented nonresidents, including Shia clerics, from entering to attend or lead prayers at mosques in Diraz.

On November 4, an appeals court sentenced Ali Salman, former leader of Wifaq, and two associates to life in prison for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011.  The appeals court reversed a previous June criminal court acquittal following an appeal by the Office of the Public Prosecutor.  Authorities had already imprisoned Salman on another charge of inciting hatred; he was due to be released in December after completion of his original four-year sentence.  The government tried Salman’s two co-defendants, former Wifaq MPs Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, in absentia.

According to local press, NGO, and social media reports, on November 13, authorities detained former Wifaq MP Ali Al Asheeri for a social media post in which he announced his intention to boycott the elections, saying, “I am a Bahraini citizen deprived of my political and civil rights so I and my family will boycott the elections.”  He was released from detention November 27, and charges were still pending at year’s end.  The Public Prosecution stated authorities were investigating Al-Asheeri for “incitement of non-participation in the elections.”

On April 18, a court sentenced former MP Mohamed Khalid to three months in prison for a posting on social media that “defamed” a religious symbol revered by Shia.

In January Shia cleric Hussain al-Qassab lost his appeal of a suspended one-year sentence and a 100,000 dinar ($265,000) fine for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license.  In 2017, the High Criminal Court convicted prominent Shia cleric Isa Qassim, who employed Qassab, on the same charges, but he did not appeal them.  Media identified Qassim as the leading Shia cleric in the country and his supporters reported his office had collected the money and spent the funds in accordance with Shia customs and obligations, and said the government had targeted him due to his prominent status in the Shia community.  Although Qassim had been under de facto house arrest since June 2016 and had his citizenship revoked, the government facilitated Qassim’s travel to London for medical treatment.  At year’s end Qassim was still undergoing treatment in London.

On October 29, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the 2017 sentence imposed by the Lower Criminal Court on former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($265,000) for helping to finance a terrorist bomb attack in July 2015 that killed two police officers.  Isa denied involvement in the bombing, saying he had not given money to terrorists, but had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of his neighborhood.

Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end.  They had been associated with the political opposition and given sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred.  Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.

On November 6, the MOJIA issued a notice to imams, muezzins, and preachers that candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections were prohibited from holding any campaign-related activities in houses of worship or religious centers.  On November 15, both the government-sponsored Sunni and Jaafari Waqf endowment boards called on citizens to participate in the upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections.

In November the UNHRC released its concluding observations on the country and its compliance with its ICCPR obligations.  The government provided input to the UNHRC in February, indicating that the constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and of religious belief, that no law or custom discriminates against any group or religion, and the constitution “envisages freedom of worship and access to such places, without discrimination in favour of one group or religion over another.”  The UNHRC, in its report, stated its concern about reports that “members of the Shia community have been subjected to restrictions of their rights to worship and profess their religious beliefs ….”  The committee also expressed concern about “reports that the Shia population is underrepresented in political and public life, including in the National Assembly.”  On freedom of religion, the committee was “concerned about the existence of practices that adversely affect the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief enshrined in article 18 of the Covenant” and suggested the government “should decriminalize blasphemy and guarantee that all people within their territory can fully enjoy the right to freedom of conscience, religion or belief,” including efforts to ensure the Shia population is fairly represented in public and political spheres and protected from discrimination.

In a submission prepared in June for the UNHRC review, a U.S.-based NGO stated that “the government has “intensified restrictions on Shia religious and cultural rights since 2011.”  The submission also stated that “security forces routinely employ violence to suppress the Shia community’s rights to free assembly, free association, free speech, and free cultural or religious expression.”

In December the king appointed Shia citizens to senior leadership positions, including cabinet members and members of the Shura council.  Official statistics on the religious affiliation or sect of public employees, members of parliament, or ministers are not maintained by the government.  However, according to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni.  Following the parliamentary elections in November and December, sources suggested that of 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia.  None of the current members of parliament ran on an explicitly sectarian platform.  Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

According to local activists and social media reports, the government’s amendments to the Exercising Political Rights Law of 2002, prevented at least five individuals from registering as candidates in the parliamentary and municipal elections in October due their prior affiliation with Wifaq, the largely Shia political society that was dissolved in 2016, a government decision that was upheld by the court in 2017.  Although the government stated it viewed the amendments as necessary to prevent lawbreakers from participating in elections, many members of the Shia community stated they viewed the law as an attempt to limit participation of opposition-oriented Shia politicians.  AI pointed out that since members of Wifaq, which it described as the largest Shia opposition group in the country, were prohibited from participating in elections, the new law “will have a de facto discriminatory effect on Shias’ political participation.”  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this legislation effectively disqualified opposition candidates from participating in the elections.  After the elections, an NGO noted that “the [historic] gerrymandering of electoral districts … has diluted the influence of … [the] Shia majority.”

According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that authorities sometimes denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time.  The Office of the Ombudsman, which was criticized by at least one NGO for failing to fulfill its mandate, reported it had not received any complaints or requests for assistance on the rights of prisoners to practice their religion during the year.  According to MOI, 10 inmates were permitted to attend funerals outside of the prison during the year.  The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees.  Based on reports it received, AI said Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment from prison guards, and denied access to needed medical care, because of their religion.  Government officials continued to state the MOI, which supervised detention facilities, only prohibited practices when they violated prison safety rules, such as waving religious banners or organizing large-scale gatherings for religious ceremonies.  The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation.  The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), a government human rights organization, which has been criticized by a U.S.-based NGO for what it said was its lack of independence, stated that it had not received any cases of prisoners being subject to harassment or ill-treatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation during the year.

In September, according to reports received by HRW, three female prisoners said prison officials assaulted them after they complained authorities denied them the right to participate in religious commemorations of Ashura.  According to one of the women’s relatives, prison authorities later restricted the inmates’ access to family visits, phone calls, and time spent outside their cells.  Following a prison visit, meetings with the detainees, and reviews of prison files, the NIHR issued a statement on October 1 that the claims of interference in religious practice were “incorrect and contrary to reality.”  On October 4, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, an NGO based in the United Kingdom, said the detainees contacted them to dispute the NIHR’s statement.

The government reported no change from 2017 in the 452 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers, and the number of licensed Shia places of worship remained at 608 mosques and 618 ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries).  The government reported it granted five permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and eight permits to build Shia mosques and ma’atams.  The government stated that determining whether a mosque would be Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.

The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it had created for individuals engaged in religious discourse.  Preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds their actions jeopardized national security.  The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers.  The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes.  The MOJIA also continued to announce how much money an adult should give on a voluntary basis to the poor on religious feast days.  According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and had them sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission.  During the annual two-day public holiday for Ashura, most public schools and government offices were closed.  Local press estimated the largest procession attracted 150,000-200,000 attendees in downtown Manama.  The government permitted public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein and public marches in commemoration of Ashura.  As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders.  The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.

The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols.  The MOI continued to provide security for large events held by religious communities, including non-Muslim ones.  Security forces stated they continued to monitor sermons, religious gatherings, and funerals to maintain peace and security.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam.  According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.

There was no progress reported on the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church in Manama following the announcement in 2016 by the king that he would permit the construction of the church.  In June government officials, diplomats, and religious leaders attended the ground breaking for the construction of a Catholic cathedral on land previously donated by the king.  The cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, was scheduled to be completed by mid-2021.  The Bahrain-based head of the Catholic Church’s Northern Vicariate Bishop Camillo Ballin has resided in the country since 2011.

In March the MOJIA reported that it had concluded reconstruction to the extent feasible of 27 of the 30 mosques it had destroyed or damaged in 2011, in compliance with an independent fact-finding commission.  Of the three remaining mosques, the government reported that one, in Salmabad, was reconstructed by local residents without a permit on an “illegal” site, despite the government’s offer for an alternative site in the same neighborhood.  According to the government, the second remaining mosque, in Hawrat Sanad, remained under evaluation because nine other Shia mosques already existed within close proximity.  The government stated the third mosque, in Madinat Hamad, would likely be relocated.  Some Shia stated they remained dissatisfied with three of the 27 reconstructed mosques because they had been rebuilt in different locations.

NGOs stated the government continued its disparate treatment of Shia versus Sunni individuals and stated this different treatment fueled perceptions among the Shia community of a justice system that was biased against them.

In contrast to previous years, there were no reports during the year of Sunnis or Shia accused of crimes having their names or pictures featured in local press prior to a conviction and often that information was omitted even after sentencing.

The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, Al Fateh Mosque, but not any sermons from Shia mosques.

According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship.  The government stated that foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation.  Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants.  They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces.  According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military.  They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses.  They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces.  According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates.  Other community members complained educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities.  The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally.  The government repeated public assurances affirming a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services.  The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods.  The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year.  Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them.

Two public schools provided more in-depth religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula being consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools.  The Jaafari Institute provided religious instruction in Shia Islam.  The Religious Institute provided education in Sunni Islam.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students.  There were five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis.  There were several dozen hawzas, six of them registered and authorized by the SCIA.

Human rights activists reported discrimination against Shia in education continued.  Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students’ political views and family background.  The government said its scholarships remained competitive.  Rights activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields.  The government reported students were offered funding in particular fields based on the student’s grade point average.  The government reported the flagship Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP) continued to have both Shia and Sunni representation, but it did not provide a statistical breakdown.  A list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools was published on the CPISP website.  Some Shia business leaders reported that government officials had overturned decisions to deny scholarships to Shia students over concerns that the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit.  There were continued reports of the MOE refusing to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who pursued studies in China.  Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.

On March 14, the government announced a fine ranging from 50 dinars ($130) to 400 dinars ($1,100) for defacing the country’s passports.  It stated that writing, tearing, or stamping a passport was illegal unless done by authorized immigration officials in Bahrain or overseas.  The NIHR stated that the ban included any alterations done by ministries, embassies, hotels, banks, or tourism agencies.  Often tourism agencies, hotels, and other individuals at overseas religious sites placed stickers or wrote on the passports.  Former Shia MP Ali Al Ateesh said the law targeted citizens for visiting [Shia] religious sites in Iran and Iraq, while those with unofficial markings from other destinations were not held accountable.  Other MPs said the new rule did not target sects, religious tours, individuals or countries.

NGOs reported the government continued to monitor closely the collection of funds by religious organizations, including charity donations.  The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

On July 26, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Secretary of State in Washington, Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa delivered remarks highlighting that “religious violence, incitement to hatred, and sectarianism have no place in Bahraini society.”  He announced the government planned to create a position of Ambassador at Large for Peace Coexistence and Religious Freedom to advocate for religious harmony and coexistence across the Middle East.  The government had not filled the position at year’s end.

Press editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance.  In March the crown prince and foreign minister met with the president of the World Jewish Congress to discuss interfaith and religious tolerance in the country.  In June the government inaugurated the King Hamad Center for Peaceful Coexistence, led by a Board of Trustees comprised of representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.  In November the Bahrain News Agency reported the minister of education inaugurated the King Hamad Chair in Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Co-Existence at Sapienza University in Rome, which according to local Bahraini reports would allow the university students to conduct scientific research and studies in the fields of tolerance and religious science.  Local press featured photos of senior government officials visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families throughout the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, local press reported individuals allegedly associated with militant groups committed attacks on police, and some groups claiming responsibility used Shia religious terminology to justify their attacks.  The government reported 22 police officers suffered injuries from such attacks during the year.  Protestors using Molotov cocktails in one attack on police stated they were throwing “holy fire” to demand the ruling family “step down.”

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media.  Posts stated that former Shia leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants,” used the hashtag “Iran Supports Sedition in Bahrain,” and displayed images of prominent Shia political figures Ali Salman and Isa Qassim.

Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so, but those who did so remained unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported regional Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have an economic effect.  Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities.  Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.

Christian community leaders stated that they continued to search for a suitable location for a new non-Muslim cemetery.

There were cremation facilities for the Hindu community.  On March 12, however, the Southern Municipal Council announced it was considering banning traditional outdoor Hindu cremations due to environmental and health concerns.  Hindu community leaders said they were not opposed to indoor incinerators since indoor cremations would be consistent with religious guidelines.

Several Hindu temples and Sikh temples operated throughout the country.  The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple was reportedly over 200 years old and was occasionally visited by high-level government officials.  The country was also home to a historic, although seldom used, Jewish synagogue.  There were more than a dozen Christian churches, which included a 100-year old evangelical church and an 80-year old Catholic church.  There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels.  The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.  Local news reports during the year featured activities of minority religious communities, including announcements of changes in leadership, Muslim bands performing at Christmas festivities, and sports events organized by the Sikh community.

Barbados

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 293,000 (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent census of 2010, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian, including Anglicans (23.9 percent of the total population), Pentecostals (19.5 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent).  Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Other religious groups, together constituting less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha’is.  Approximately 20.6 percent of respondents do not identify a religious affiliation.  The Barbados Muslim Association states there are 3,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and prohibition of discrimination based on creed.  A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is not enforced.

The government does not require religious groups to register.  To obtain duty-free import privileges and tax benefits, however, the government requires religious groups to register with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office.  A religious group must file the relevant customs and tax forms, along with a resolution passed by the majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, plus the group’s related statutory declaration.

The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction.  The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools to help cover the cost of students who could not find space in a public school.  The public school curriculum includes religious “values education” as part of the historic association of schools with Christian missionaries who founded many of the schools.  At the primary school level, the focus is on Christianity from several denominations.  At the secondary school level, all major religions are included.  The constitution protects students from mandatory religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or, if under the age of 21, consent of the guardian.

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

Government Practices

Rastafarians again stated their objection to the government’s enforcement of the marijuana prohibition for any use, including for religious rituals.

Representatives from the Barbados Muslim Association said they objected to a government policy requiring women to remove all head coverings for identification and passport photographs.  The association met with all political parties to discuss the issue, and the new administration stated that it would review this practice.  Some Rastafarians again stated that police and immigration officials often asked them to remove head coverings and gave extra scrutiny to Rastafarian women at checkpoints as pretexts to search for marijuana.

Rastafarians stated that the requirement for vaccinations for all children to enroll in public schools violated Rastafarian religious beliefs.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Rastafarians again reported societal discrimination.  Rastafarian sources, however, also said they believed public opinion of their community was gradually improving.

Belarus

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a January 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration, approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and 6 percent to the Roman Catholic Church.  According to the state survey, 8 percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.”  Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include:  Jews; Muslims; Greek Catholics (“Uniates”); Old Believers (priestist and priestless); members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists.  Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews.  Ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, tend to be Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious beliefs and to participate in the performance of acts of worship not prohibited by law.  It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law.  The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.”  It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality.  The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters.

The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths:  Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism.  The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.

A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state.  The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.”  Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.”  The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies.  In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s patron saint.

The concordat also serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies.  There are at least a dozen such agreements, including an agreement with the Ministry of Education covering cooperation on education through 2020 and providing for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.

The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups:  religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations.  Religious communities must include at least 20 persons over the age of 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas.  Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, one of which must have been active in the country for at least 20 years, and may be constituted only by a national-level religious association.  National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.

According to government data as of January 1, 2017, (the most recent data available), there are 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,350 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools.  The BOC has 1,681 religious communities, 15 dioceses, seven schools, 35 monasteries, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods.  The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, five schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 496 communities.  Protestant religious organizations of 14 denominations have 1,033 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools.  There are 33 registered religious communities of Old Believers.  There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 52 communities, including 10 autonomous communities.  In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.

National religious associations include the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.

To register, a religious community must submit an official application with the following information:  a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from the regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes.  A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs.  The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts.  The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion; rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches towards marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements.  In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion.  It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.

Regional government authorities, as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk), review all registration applications.  Permissible grounds for denial of registration are broad and include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, or a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts.  Communities may appeal refusals in court.

In order to register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress.  Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities.  All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond.  Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community.  Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.

The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered.  The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter.  The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning.  The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision.  The law contains no provision for appeal of the warning or suspension.

The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from unspecified fines to two years in prison.

The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission.  The local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements.  The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.

By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.

The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature.  The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.

Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for the restitution of property to local authorities.  The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property currently used for cultural or sports purposes.

The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy; however, it does not permit religious communities to do so.

The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions.  The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is currently the only religious group to have such an agreement.  Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval.  According to the law, “such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’ sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”

The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves.  It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.

The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.

The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons.  The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors.  By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.

Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country.  OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign religious workers may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work.  The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended.  OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation.  There is no provision for appeals.

By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered.  Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission.  By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups.  The authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities.  Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country.

The law does not restrict religious groups from raising donations in public.

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

Government Practices

The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that on October 27, police in Lepel in the Vitsyebsk Region detained Baptist husband and wife Andrei and Tatsyana Fokin, who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature.  Authorities charged both with violating procedures for organizing a mass event or demonstration and fined the husband 661.5 rubles ($310) and the wife 539 rubles ($250).  Andrei Fokin said he and his wife were still in debt from 2017 fines levied following their detention in 2017 for similar activities.

According to Forum 18 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities in Rahachou in Homyel Region detained Jehovah’s Witnesses Tamara Vitkouskaya and Volha Hrapava on March 24 as they were distributing religious literature, charging them with illegal picketing.  On May 16, the Rahachou District Court fined the two Witnesses 49 rubles ($23) each, and the Homyel Regional Court dismissed their subsequent appeals in June.

Forum 18 also reported that on November 26, authorities detained for 24 hours Father Vikentsy, a priest of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is not officially registered, for preaching and seeking donations in an apartment block in Minsk.  Forum 18 stated that on November 30, a Minsk district court found Vikentsy not guilty and closed the case.

The government continued surveillance on minority religious groups of various Protestant denominations.  According to various observers, government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions.  Government officials reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities.  According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.  The Roman Catholic Church expressed concerns that in some regions of the country local ideology officers requested the church provide them with Sunday school programs and lists of children attending them.  According to the independent Belarusian Christian news portal krynica.info, local authorities in some regions summoned Catholic priests for questioning after they held services to honor the anniversary of the 1918 establishment of the Belarusian National Republic on March 25.

Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs.  The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to continue to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable.

During the year, authorities in Barysau, Slonim and Vileika rejected applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses communities.  Authorities also continued to deny registration to several Protestant religious communities, including a community within the Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches in Maladzechna.  On July 6 and then on August 30, city authorities denied an independent Pentecostal community’s applications for registration in two separate locations in Minsk.  In both cases, officials stated that locations provided by the community did not comply with regulations, but did not explain their refusals in detail.  The community filed an appeal on October 18, which was denied in December.

Independent religious experts continued to report minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members continued to be unwilling to provide their names as part of the application process due to fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities.  Additionally, a number of them said they did not report registration denials because they believed that if they did not publicize the denials, they might still be able to negotiate their communities’ registration with local authorities.

In November the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the state repeal the requirement of mandatory state registration of religious communities, but the state had taken no action as of the end of the year.

Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and due to fear of criminal prosecution.  According to independent religious experts, many registered religious communities also remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions because of fear of punishment.

Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary.  Authorities continued to deny permission for a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Homyel to hold religious services at a private home, but continued to allow it to hold services at rented premises.  In October the local government in the city of Mahilyou allowed a local Jehovah’s Witness community to hold religious services at rented premises.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in August the Mahilyou Regional Executive Committee issued a warning notice to the local community for engaging in illegal religious activity and meeting in places that were not designated for worship and without authorization from the local authorities.

Human rights groups reported prison administrators continued to deny Muslim and Protestant clergy, and in some cases Roman Catholic clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths (any faiths not among the four recognized as “traditional”), permission to visit inmates in prison.  At the same time, they said, authorities continued to grant BOC, and in some cases Catholic clergy, permission to visit believers in prison on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Minsk city officials approved a request from the national association for a convention to take place in the city July 27 to 29.  Approximately 9,000 members attended the convention without hindrance, compared with approximately 7,300 the previous year.  In November, however, authorities in a Minsk district denied a Jehovah’s Witnesses community group’s application to hold a convention for its Minsk city community of approximately 1,000 members at a local cultural center on November 24-25.  In Vitsyebsk, authorities denied a request from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a local convention in November.  In each case, authorities did not give a reason for the denial.

Authorities in the town of Radashkovichi allowed the Full Gospel Christian Church’s “Youth With A Mission” group to hold its Christian youth conference at a local facility April 27-May 1.

Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to what they said was the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of punishment.  In contrast, Orthodox literature remained available countrywide.  The BOC remained able to proselytize freely and, unlike other religious groups, continued to participate in government-sponsored public events such as rallies without the need to seek prior approval from authorities.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 30, the Brest Regional Executive Committee issued a notice to the Brest Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, warning the community it had distributed printed religious material at unauthorized locations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the warning did not refer to any specific incidents.

While the national government approved the import of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ requested literature during the year, local governments in Brest and Mahilyou issued written warnings to communities against proselytizing.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents generally had to wait three months before receiving permission to import new religious periodicals.

Religious groups continued to report problems purchasing properties as places of worship.  They continued to say that converting residential property to religious use also remained difficult.  Renting a public facility to hold religious services remained difficult as well.  For example, some Protestant communities continued to report they were able to conclude only short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which allowed authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements as a means of preventing religious activities.  Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups in this regard because they were less likely to own religious facilities and they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because these residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.

The government continued to require students to use textbooks that representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance towards them, citing chapters in the books that labeled such groups as “sects.”  The textbooks described nontraditional religious groups as “striving for the exclusiveness of their role, doctrine, and principles,” being isolationist, and claiming to be God-chosen, among other things.

According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government.  School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.

On August 28, the Catholic Diocese of Hrodna received a certificate granting registration to Saint Kazimir’s College of Theology in Hrodna.  The college became the fifth Roman Catholic institute of higher education in the country.

Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways restricting the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country.  Forum 18 reported OPRRNA rejected applications in the spring from the BOC’s Vitsyebsk Diocese for two Orthodox priests from Russia.

Local human rights portals stated that on April 30, the government expelled Polish Catholic priest Krzysztof Poswiata, who ministered in the town of Hatava near Minsk, after authorities refused to extend his permission to serve.  Poswiata reportedly received three speeding tickets in 2018, which authorities told Forum 18 was the reason for his expulsion.  Forum 18 reported that on June 4, OPRRNA rejected the application of the Catholic Diocese of Vitsyebsk for Polish priest Karol Prandzioch to serve at a parish in Shumilina, replacing another Polish priest who was leaving voluntarily.  Father Uladzimir Razanovich, secretary of the Vitsyebsk Diocesan administration, told Forum 18 that unofficially, the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than having foreigners.

According to Catholic Archbishop of Minsk Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including:  newly arrived priests had to undergo a lengthy approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; the government often issued them visas for only three to six months; and they often encountered administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas.

A representative of the Polish community in Hrodna told the press on July 26 that local authorities denied Polish priest Ryszard Umanski entrance into the country, saying he did not have a religious visa.  In applying for the visa, he reportedly said the visit would be private and not related to any religious activity.

There were no developments regarding the longstanding freeze placed on the assets of New Life Church in 2005.  Minsk authorities did not renew their attempts to evict the church from its premises, a process that began in 2007 and continued through 2012 after the authorities refused to register the church at its location.  While the church continued to use the space for religious purposes, it remained unable to obtain proof of ownership from the authorities and had no access to electricity.  Church leadership’s discussions with Minsk city authorities on the status and operations of the church were continuing at year’s end.

The authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property.  While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties.  Groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.

During the year, the Jewish community worked with local authorities to erect at least eight new privately funded monuments in the villages of Svislach, Klimavichy, and Petrykau and other locations that specifically commemorated Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The government supported commemorative events and an international conference dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 21-23.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held an international roundtable on October 22 to discuss remembrance and lessons of the Minsk ghetto, which included former ghetto prisoners, local historians, international and local officials, and representatives of the diplomatic and Jewish communities.  Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey condemned “hatred and bigotry, which could lead to killings of masses of people based on their religious or ethnic attributes.”  He also noted increasing xenophobia, discrimination, anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and warned against the revival of Nazism and ideas of racial superiority.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, authorities convicted a number of offenders who reportedly associated themselves with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews, among others.  On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk Region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims.  In another case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy District of Brest Region for posting videos with anti-Semitic content and calls for violence against natives of the Caucasus (the majority of whom are Muslim).  A court sentenced the man to a year and a month in jail on April 18.

In March a Mahilyou District court convicted two local residents detained in November 2017 for stealing parts of metal fencing from graves at a local Jewish cemetery.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, doctors continued to force their believers to accept blood transfusions as part of their treatment, despite their explicit written refusal of blood transfusions.

The BOC, in particular the Minsk-based parish of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, continued its annual commemoration honoring Hauryil Belastoksky, a child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs.  Jewish community leaders again expressed concern over the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, the text of which included a passage stating the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”

In a televised interview on November 24, Metropolitan of the BOC Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and said they were spreading “propaganda and not preaching.”  He added, “You cannot talk to them about anything and if you do, they turn into gypsies” and “start soliciting until they rob you.”  On November 27, head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists Leanid Mikhovich called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable” and blessed “all Baptists in the country, especially representatives of the Roma who are believers of [our] faith.”

While the government had previously banned various literature and printed materials it classified as “extremist” and they were no longer widely sold in mainstream bookstores, anti-Semitic and xenophobic newspapers, literature, digital video discs, and videotapes, frequently imported from Russia, continued to be available.

The Bible Society, an interdenominational Christian fellowship center, continued to print and distribute copies of the Bible and other religious literature, including donating Bibles to children’s and nursing homes, temporary shelters, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals during the year.  The society also distributed copies of the Bible and other religious literature to foster and underprivileged families in towns and villages across the country.  In addition, the society extensively promoted the distribution of the Bible translated into the Belarusian language.  Founded by the BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, the Bible Society also engaged in educational and charitable projects targeting vulnerable populations.  These projects included Bible studies, summer schools and camps, and literacy courses for children.

An interreligious working group comprised of the BOC, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized quarterly meetings, seminars on theological themes, trips around the country, and a trip to Dachau and Flossenburg, Germany, that focused on interfaith dialogue.  The group visited sites of former concentration camps and participated in commemorations of the1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Munich.

On January 20, BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran churches held ecumenical services marking the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at parishes across the country.  Clergy stressed the importance of cooperation and understanding among Christians.

Bolivia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government figures, 77 percent of the population identifies as Catholic and 16 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal groups.  According to the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ in La Paz, approximately 300,000 thousand followers reside in the country; the Church of Jesus Christ’s central website estimates more than 200,000 followers.  Approximately 5 percent identify with smaller religious groups and 5 percent self-identify as nonbelievers.  There are approximately 1,500 Muslims and approximately 450 Jews, according to leaders of the respective faiths and news reports.  Many indigenous communities, concentrated in rural areas, practice a mix of Catholic and indigenous spiritual traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the state respects and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion and cult,” expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private.  The constitution stipulates the state is independent of all religion.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, including in access to educational institutions, health services, and employment and protects the right of access to public sport and recreational activities without regard to religion.

The law requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to operate legally.  Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from the registration law.

According to the MFA’s Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations Office, religious organizations must fulfill 14 requirements to register their organization with the government.  Organizations must submit their notarized legal documents, including statutes, internal regulations, and procedures; rental agreement documents, utility invoices for the place(s) of worship, and a site map; detailed information on board members and legal representatives, including criminal background checks; an INTERPOL certificate for foreigners; and proof of fiscal solvency.  They must also provide the organization chart, with names, addresses, identification card numbers, and photographs; a full list of members and identifying information; details on activities and services provided by the organization, including the location of the services; and information on their financing source(s), domestic and/or foreign.

The requirements for classification as a spiritual organization or religious organization vary slightly, but the government requires essentially the same type of information from both spiritual and religious entities.  The constitution defines a spiritual organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves to carry out practices that develop their spirituality according to their ancestral worldview.  Most spiritual organizations are indigenous in their origins.  The constitution defines a religious organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves with the purpose of carrying out practices of worship and/or belief around a Supreme Being, in order to develop their spirituality and religiosity, and whose purpose does not pursue profit.

The government may revoke a spiritual or religious organization’s operating license if the organization does not produce an annual report of activities for more than two consecutive years; does not comply with its stated objectives; carries out activities different from those established in its statute; or carries out activities contrary to the country’s constitution, laws, morality, or “good customs.”  A religious or spiritual organization may also lose its operating license if it does not comply with the deadline for renewing the license.

A 2017 regulation requires religious and spiritual groups to reregister their operating licenses to ensure all documents list the official name of the country as “Estado Plurinacional.”  Prior to this new requirement, organizations could carry an older version of licenses that listed the name of the state as “Republica de Bolivia.”  Reregistration also requires any amendments to organizations’ bylaws to conform to all new national laws.  Organizations must comply with the new registration requirements by 2019.  Registered religious groups receive tax, customs, and other legal benefits.

The fees to obtain an operating license differ between “Religious Organizations” and “Spiritual Organizations,” with costs of 6,780 bolivianos ($990) and 4,068 bolivianos ($590), respectively.

The government reserves the right to revoke an organization’s operating permit for noncompliance with the registration requirements.  The government may not deny legal recognition to any organization based on its articles of faith.

The constitution and other laws provide educational institutions the option to teach religion classes, including indigenous spiritual belief classes, with the stated aim of encouraging mutual respect among religious communities.  While religion classes are optional, schools must teach ethics with curriculum materials that promote religious tolerance.  The government does not restrict religious teaching in public or private schools, and it does not restrict a student from attending private, religiously affiliated schools.  The law also requires all schools to accept students regardless of their religious affiliation.

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

Government Practices

Members of the evangelical Protestant community again said several smaller religious communities forming congregations that observe prayer at unofficial worship locations continued to refuse to register their organizations because they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal personal information.  Sources stated that these unregistered groups still could neither own property nor have bank accounts in their name; however, the sources said the government did not interfere with these organizations for their refusal to comply with the law.

According to the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations, there were approximately 440 registered religious groups, an increase from 434 in 2017.  Many religious groups continued to state that the complexity of the registration procedure, including registering the legal name of the organization, required them to seek legal assistance in order to comply.  This process generally took four to six months to complete.

Leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ and evangelical Protestant churches continued to work with the government on a legislative proposal exempting churches from the registration requirements for the next five years.

The Bolivian National Association of Evangelicals sent a letter to the foreign minister on September 27, raising what it said was governmental preferential treatment of indigenous groups and citing the fee structure difference to obtain operating licenses for spiritual and religious groups as an example.  The government did not respond to the letter during the year.

On December 24, after a meeting between evangelical Protestant leaders and President Evo Morales, Foreign Minister Diego Pary, and the previous president of congress, Jose Gonzalez, the government announced the congress would introduce a draft Religious Freedom law in February 2019.  In January the congress abrogated the revised penal code, which had included an article criminalizing recruitment into “religious organizations or cults.”  The action was reportedly in response to civil society protests of the revision, including from members of the evangelical Protestant community.

According to media reports and religious leaders, government leaders continued to criticize religious leaders who publicly commented on political issues.  Catholic representatives said the longstanding and public tensions between the Catholic community and the government continued.  According to media reports, in June the Bolivian Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CEB) deputy general secretary, Father Jose Fuentes, stated that President Evo Morales’ politics excluded portions of the country’s population.  In response to these comments, President Morales accused the CEB of racism.  In November Archbishop of Sucre Jesus Juarez stated that the CEB backed the outcome of the 2016 referendum reaffirming term limits for the president and vice president.  On November 5, the CEB officially invited President Morales to the Assembly of Bishops.  The minister of the Presidency, Alfredo Rada, publicly released a letter rejecting the CEB’s invitation.  The letter, signed by Rada, stated that the Office of the President was surprised to receive the invitation because some bishops “attack” the current administration and “persist in using hard and false concepts” such as the accusation that the country’s democracy was at risk.

On December 2, the CEB commented on the November 2017 Plurinational Constitutional Court of Bolivia (TCP) ruling, which invalidated the referendum’s outcome by removing term limits for elected officials, thus allowing President Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term.  The CEB stated that the TCP decision “constitutes a serious damage to democracy, and ignores the popular will expressed in the referendum of February 21, 2016.”  Father Fuentes of the CEB further stated, “This precedent may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the authorities and institutions called to preserve the democratic health of our country.  It could put us in a situation of violation of the constitutional order of unforeseeable consequences.”  President Morales responded to the CEB’s comments by stating that some bishops and other members of the Catholic Church were “inclined to support the powerful” and were “betraying Jesus” by supporting the opposition.

A representative from the Jewish community stated the Jewish community still had no contact with the president or any other kind of relationship with the Morales administration.

Evangelical Protestant leaders again said the government violated the constitution’s separation of religion and state by favoring an Andean spiritual philosophy, especially the philosophy of the ethnic Aymara community, over other religious beliefs, in public statements and ceremonies.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Evangelical Protestant leaders again stated that members of indigenous communities continued to expel missionaries and pastors from rural communities for practicing a religion that did not defer to traditional Andean spiritual beliefs.  According to leaders in the evangelical Protestant community, indigenous leaders expelled pastors from rural villages for not observing indigenous customs such as making offerings to mother earth.

Cameroon

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2005 census, the most recent available, 69.2 percent of the population is Christian, 20.9 percent Muslim, 5.6 percent animist, 1.0 percent other religions, and 3.2 percent report no religious affiliation.  Of Christians, approximately 55.5 percent are Roman Catholic, 38 percent Protestant, and 6.5 percent other Christian denominations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox churches.  The 2010 Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project found that 70.3 percent of the population was Christian, 18.3 percent Muslim, 3.3 percent animist, 2.7 percent other religions and 5.5 percent with no religious affiliation.  Of the Christians, this report found that 38.3 percent were Catholic and 31.4 percent were Protestant.  There is a growing number of Christian revivalist churches.

Christians are concentrated primarily in the southern and western parts of the country.  The two Anglophone regions are largely Protestant, and the five southern Francophone regions are mostly Catholic.  The Fulani (Peuhl) ethnic group is mostly Muslim and lives primarily in the northern Francophone regions; the Bamoun ethnic group is also predominantly Muslim and lives in the West Region.  Many Muslims, Christians, and members of other faiths also adhere to some aspects of animist beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes the state as secular, prohibits harassment or discrimination on grounds of religion, and provides for freedom of religion and worship.

The law on freedom of association governs relations between the government and religious groups.  The government must approve religious groups or institutions as a prerequisite for lawful operation.  Although the law prescribes no specific penalties for operating without official recognition, the government may suspend the activities of unauthorized groups.  The government does not require indigenous religious groups to register, characterizing the practice of traditional religion as a private concern observed by members of a particular ethnic or kinship group or the residents of a particular locality.

To become an authorized entity, a religious group must legally qualify as a religious congregation, defined as “any group of natural persons or corporate bodies whose vocation is divine worship” or “any group of persons living in community in accordance with a religious doctrine.”  The entity must submit a request for authorization as a religious group and include with it the group’s charter describing planned activities, names and functions of the group’s officials, and a declaration of commitment to comply with the law on freedom of association, to the relevant divisional (local-level) office.  That office forwards the documents to the Ministry of Territorial Administration (MINAT).  The MINAT reviews the file and sends it to the presidency with a recommendation to approve or deny.  Authorization is granted by presidential decree.  Official authorization confers no general tax benefits but allows religious groups to receive real estate as a tax-free gift for the conduct of activities and to gather publicly and worship.  It also permits missionaries to receive visas with longer validity.  Unauthorized religious groups may gather publicly and worship under a policy of “administrative tolerance” as long as public security and peace are not disturbed.

The MINAT may issue an order to suspend any religious group for “disturbing public order,” although no legislation defines these terms.  The president may dissolve any previously authorized religious organization that “deviates from its initial focus.”

The Ministry of Basic Education and the Ministry of Secondary Education require private religious schools to comply with the same curriculum, infrastructure, and teacher-training standards as state-operated schools.  Unlike public schools, private schools may offer religious education.

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

Government Practices

The Catholic Bishop of Mamfe Diocese, Andrew Nkea, stated that on November 21, soldiers of the National Gendarmerie killed Reverend Cosmas Omboto Ondari, the parochial vicar of the St. Martin’s of Tours Parish, Kembong, Southwest Region, in front of the church building.  The bishop stated that, according to eyewitness reports, gendarmes fired at random from their passing vehicle, killing Ondari as he tried to escape the gunfire.  Nkea said that when he visited the parish the next day, he counted 21 bullet holes in the church door and saw the blood of the dead priest at the entrance.  The Minister of Communication at the time, Issa Tchiroma Barkary, said the killing was not done by the military, and Minister of Defense Joseph Beti Assomo accused Anglophone separatists of killing the priest and trying to discredit the defense forces.

According to the Catholic Archbishop of Bamenda, Cornelius Fontem Esua, on October 4, unidentified soldiers shot and killed 19-year-old Catholic seminarian Akiata Gerard Anjiangwe in front of St. Therese Church in Bamessing, Northwest Region.  In an October 5 press statement, Archbishop Esua accused the country’s military of killing the seminarian while he made preparations for worship services the next day.  According to Archbishop Esua, a military truck drove up to the church and soldiers immediately began shooting.  Worshippers on the premises ran into the rectory and blocked the door while Anjiangwe knelt in front of the church and began praying the rosary.  Esua said the soldiers shot the seminarian three times.

The family of Ghanaian pastor Isaac Attoh of Destiny Impact Ministry, Accra, stated government security forces shot and killed Attoh on June 14 in Batibo, Northwest Region, where the army and Anglophone secessionists repeatedly clashed during the year.  According to his family, Attoh had travelled from Ghana to Cameroon, where he headed one of the branches of Destiny Impact Ministry.  Attoh’s family accused the government of trying to cover up the killing by rapidly burying his body without their consent.

In September the trial of Prisca Abomo, a self-proclaimed prophet, and Marie Madjou began.  The two were accused of murder and detained in 2016 after a child died during a faith healing session they conducted in Douala, Littoral Region.  Sources stated the lengthy pretrial period was due to administrative delays and the frequent absences of the judges and accusers.  In December the courts declared Abomo and Madjou innocent.

Residents of the village of Kwa-Kwa, Southwest Region, said that following intense clashes with Anglophone separatists on January 18, security forces occupying Kwa-Kwa burned down the rectory of St. Paul’s Catholic Church.  The army blamed the act on “Anglophone terrorists.”

Parishioners of Saint Kizito’s Catholic Church, Bamenda, Northwest Region, stated soldiers entered the church on October 7 and compelled 26 Christians preparing for Sunday worship to return to their homes.  They also confronted the priest who came to celebrate Mass and ordered him off the church premises.  On the same day, soldiers turned back worshippers on their way to St. Paul’s Church in Nkwen neighborhood, Bamenda.  The soldiers said they were enforcing a ban ordered by the governor of the Northwest Region on all assemblies of more than four persons during a 48-hour period before and after the October 7 presidential election.

The courts intervened on several occasions in protracted leadership crises within Christian groups, such as the Cameroonian Evangelical Church (CEC) and the Cameroonian Presbyterian Church (CPC).  On June 6, the Littoral Regional Court of Appeal confirmed a 2017 court ruling that suspended the CEC’s national leadership council elected in April 2017.  On June 20, a group of Christians blocked the entrance to a CEC church in Douala and demanded the termination of the activities of the national leadership council.  In April 2017, CEC members had elected Reverend Jean Samuel Hendje Toya as president, but a faction of CEC members protested and filed a lawsuit in May 2017, saying the election had been rigged.  Demonstrations and interruptions of church service ensued, and in July 2017, the Court of First Instance in Wouri, Littoral Region, suspended the installation of those elected in April 2017.  Toya’s supporters criticized interference by the courts in the CEC’s internal disputes and appealed the decision, which the Littoral Region’s appellate court upheld in June 2018.  Toya’s faction appealed the decision at the Supreme Court.

Dissenting groups within the CPC failed to reach consensus in January when the CPC’s General Assembly reaffirmed a controversial decision the previous year to split the Ntem consistory (administrative unit) in Ebolowa, South Region, into three separate consistories, without consulting parishioners.  The two sides went to court, and the CPC’s General Assembly asked the court to seal the churches under the authority of the disputed Ntem consistory until a verdict was reached.  The courts subsequently shut down several CPC churches in March.  Worshipers who could no longer access the shuttered churches organized religious services in makeshift tents or in the open.  In 2017 the government had placed the disputed parishes under the temporary administration of the CPC General Assembly.

The government again took no action to adjudicate applications for authorization by a number of religious groups whose applications had been pending for years.  The government approved only one new religious group in the last 18 years and none since 2010.  The MINAT again stated that incomplete application submissions and lengthy background investigations contributed to delays.  Although by law groups must register, the government continued to allow hundreds of unauthorized small religious groups to operate freely under its policy of “administrative tolerance.”  Unauthorized churches often circumvented administrative delays by associating with registered religious groups, under whose umbrella they operated.  Such churches, however, technically remained unregistered.  Some religious leaders said the government deliberately withheld legal status in order to maintain significant leverage over unregistered groups, which it could threaten to ban at any time.  Forty-seven religious groups continued to be legally authorized at year’s end.

The government continued to grant broad legal authority to traditional leaders to manage their districts.  As part of this authority, traditional leaders continued to exercise control over local mosques with the right to appoint or dismiss imams.

The state-sponsored television station and radio stations regularly broadcast Christian and Islamic religious services and ceremonies on national holidays and during national events.  Government ministers and other officials often attended these ceremonies.

The government provided an annual subsidy to all private primary and secondary education institutions, including those operated by religious denominations.  The size of each subsidy was proportional to the size of the student body.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

On August 12, unidentified armed men interrupted a Sunday service at the Baptist church in Ekondo-Titi village, Southwest Region, and forcibly removed the traditional ruler, Chief Isoh Itoh, whom they shot and killed.  Although no group claimed responsibility for the act, many local residents attributed it to Anglophone separatists because of Isoh’s perceived allegiance to the ruling party and his opposition to separatists’ quest for the secession of the Northwest and Southwest Regions.

On July 20, unidentified armed men shot and killed Catholic priest Alexander Sob Nougi in Muyuka, Southwest Region.  His bishop, Emmanuel Bushu of the Diocese of Buea, dismissed suggestions that a stray bullet killed Sob Nougi during an exchange between the army and Anglophone separatists.  Bushu said two unknown individuals had been sitting with Sob Nougi prior to the shooting and that autopsy reports indicated the killer shot Sob Nougi at point blank range, using an assault rifle fitted with a silencer.  Although no one claimed responsibility for Sob Nougi’s killing, the national coordinator of the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Service, Isaac Justin Mabouth, attributed it to Anglophone separatists.  He said Sob Nougi became a target when he ignored separatists’ calls for a school boycott in the Northwest and Southwest Regions.  As the diocese’s education secretary, Sob Nougi reportedly spoke out against the school boycott and urged students to attend class.  A nongovernmental organization leader based in the Southwest Region stated that soldiers of the Rapid Intervention Brigade apparently killed Sob Nougi, whom they suspected of providing assistance to separatists.

In October an American missionary was killed after being caught in crossfire in Bamenda, Northwest Region.  There were no reports of any connection to the victim’s vocation or nationality but rather reports that this was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Armed Anglophone separatists stormed a Presbyterian school in Bamenda, Northwest Region, on November 5.  The head of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and the Council of the Protestant Churches of Cameroon reported the total number kidnapped was 79 children and three adults and added that 11 students had also been kidnapped on October 31.  He said the Presbyterian Church had decided to close all its schools in the two Anglophone regions as result of this incident.

Unidentified armed men entered St. Bede’s College in Kom, Northwest Region, on April 30 and abducted the principal of the school, Reverend William Neba, while he was celebrating Mass in the chapel.  On May 2, the Catholic Archdiocese of Bamenda announced his release.  St. Bede’s and other Catholic schools suspended operations thereafter, just weeks before the academic year officially ended.  This led to media speculation that Anglophone separatists kidnapped Neba because St. Bede’s College had not respected calls for a school boycott in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions.  According to media reports, the kidnappers released Neba when Catholic authorities agreed to shut down their schools immediately.

According to media reports, in November Anglophone separatists kidnapped three Franciscan sisters and 13 novices who were traveling in the Northwest Region.  A source from the diocese in Kumbo stated the kidnapping occurred because the kidnappers saw the church as supportive of a peace conference convened by a Catholic cardinal.  The kidnappers released the women the following day to representatives of the diocese.

On April 25 in Bangolan village, Northwest Region, the village council shuttered the local church building of Christian Missionary Fellowship International (CMFI), which it accused of violating local customs, and banned the group from proselytism.  The traditional council clashed with the church over the burial ceremony of a CMFI member who had purportedly joined CMFI shortly before he died.  During the funeral, Kennedy Ndigwa, the younger brother of the dead man, attacked the traditional council’s delegate who came to perform funeral rites.  Ndigwa stated that his brother had joined CMFI and had abandoned traditional rites.  Immediately after this incident, the traditional council announced the ban on the church’s activities.

In August separatists threatened to stop the religious activities of Pentecostal pastor Johnson Souleymane in Northwest and Southwest Regions.  Souleymane, coordinator of Omega Fire Ministry, had previously preached against violence and accused certain separatist fighters of rape, extortion, abduction, and murder.  He said they pretended to fight for Anglophones while taking advantage of the situation for financial gain.  After the separatists threatened him, Souleymane ceased his denunciations and said he had been misunderstood.

In September the national coordinator of the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Service, Isaac Justin Mabouth, stated that Christians had deserted nearly all the Catholic parishes in Manyu division, Southwest Region.  He said Anglophone separatists had stigmatized the Catholic Church as being opposed to the independence of the Northwest and Southwest Regions.

On June 6, Bishop Dibo Thomas B. Elango of the Anglican Church of Cameroon said that clashes between Anglophone separatists and security forces significantly interfered with Christians’ freedom of worship.  He stated that many Christians had fled conflict areas into the bushes, where they could not access places of worship, and he accused both sides of targeting members of the clergy.

On February 1, the Association for Interreligious Dialogue (ACADIR) organized an interfaith prayer partly aimed at promoting the peaceful coexistence of different religious communities.  During the year, ACADIR set up six divisional branches for the training of 300 “peace ambassadors” to promote interreligious dialogue and tolerance.  On July 3, Muslim leaders organized a public conference in Yaounde, Center Region, at which Congolese Muslim theologian Kasogbia Abdoul Madjid emphasized peaceful coexistence and stated there was no link between Islam and extremist violence.  In a similar conference in Douala, Littoral Region, he characterized diversity in religious beliefs as “the will of God.”  In April the Catholic Diocese of Maroua-Mokolo organized a series of sports competitions in which diverse religious communities participated, with the aim of promoting peace and interreligious dialogue.

Costa Rica

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5 million (July 2018 estimate).  A March survey by the Center for Research and Political Studies of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) estimates 52 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 71.8 percent in UCR’s 2016 survey); 22 percent Protestant, including evangelical Protestants (compared with 12.3 percent in the 2016 survey); 9 percent other religious groups (compared with 2.9 percent in 2016); and 17 percent without religious affiliation (compared with 12.3 percent in 2016).

The majority of Protestants are Pentecostal, with smaller numbers of Lutherans and Baptists.  There are an estimated 32,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, predominantly on the Caribbean coast.  The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its membership at 50,000.  The Jewish Zionist Center estimates there are between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews in the country.  Approximately 1,000 Quakers live near the cloud forest reserve of Monteverde, Puntarenas.  Smaller groups include followers of Islam, Taoism, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Baha’i Faith.  Some members of indigenous groups practice animism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and requires the state to contribute to its maintenance.  The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not undermine “universal morality or proper behavior.”  Unlike other religious groups, the Catholic Church is not registered as an association and receives special legal recognition.  Its assets and holdings are governed consistent with Catholic canon law.

The constitution recognizes the right to practice the religion of one’s choice.  By law, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may file suit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, and may also file a motion before the Constitutional Chamber to have a statute or regulation declared unconstitutional.  Additionally, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may appeal to the Administrative Court to sue the government for alleged discriminatory acts.  Legal protections cover discrimination by private persons and entities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion is responsible for managing the government’s relationship with the Catholic Church and other religious groups.  According to the law, a group with a minimum of 10 persons may incorporate as an association with judicial status by registering with the public registry of the Ministry of Justice.  The government does not require religious groups to register; however, religious groups must register if they choose to engage in any type of fundraising.  Registration also entitles them to obtain legal representation and standing to own property.

The constitution forbids Catholic clergy from serving in the capacity of president, vice president, cabinet member, or Supreme Court justice.  This prohibition does not apply to non-Catholic clergy.

An executive order provides the legal framework for religious organizations to establish places of worship.  Religious organizations must submit applications to the local municipality to establish a place of worship and to comply with safety and noise regulations established by law.

The law establishes that public schools must provide ecumenical religious instruction by a person who is able to promote moral values and tolerance and be respectful of human rights.  If a parent on behalf of a child chooses to opt out of religious courses, the parent must make a written request.  The Ministry of Public Education provides assistance for religious education to private schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, including directly hiring teachers and providing teacher salaries and other funds.

The law allows the government to provide land free of charge to the Catholic Church only.  Government-to-church land transfers are typically granted through periodic legislation.

Only Catholic priests and public notaries may perform state-recognized marriages.  Wedding ceremonies performed by other religious groups must be legalized through a civil union.

Immigration law requires foreign religious workers to belong to a religious group accredited for migration control purposes by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, and it stipulates religious workers may receive permission to stay at least 90 days but not more than two years.  The permission is renewable.  To obtain accreditation, a religious group must present documentation about its organization, including its complete name, number of followers, bank information, number of houses of worship, and names of and information on the group’s board of directors.  Immigration regulations require religious workers to apply for temporary residence before arrival.

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

Government Practices

Some non-Catholic leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding registration processes.  Members of Protestant groups registered as secular associations continued to state they preferred a separate registration that would specifically cover church construction and operation, permits to organize events, and pastoral access to hospitals and jails for members of non-Catholic religious groups.  In the case of the Catholic Church, the government continued to address such concerns through the special legal recognition afforded the Church under canon law.

The place of religion in the political process was a subject of much public discussion during the election season.  In January, one month before national legislative elections and the presidential primary, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR) issued an advisory opinion recommending the country legalize same-sex partnerships, making this a central issue of public debate.  The Catholic Church and the Evangelical Alliance stated their opposition to same-sex partnerships and urged their followers to vote in line with their moral values.  In response to the groups’ public statements near the time of the election, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) issued a directive in February ordering religious groups to refrain from influencing the vote of their parishioners, in line with a constitutional prohibition on the involvement of religious groups in political activities.  The Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica and Evangelical Alliance appealed the TSE’s directive on freedom of expression grounds, which the TSE denied.

After the election, same-sex partnerships continued to be a topic of public debate, as officials considered whether, and if so, how to implement the IACHR decision.  In August the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the Family Code definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional.  The chamber gave the National Assembly 18 months to take action before the law would be automatically repealed by the court.  This would legalize same-sex partnerships de facto.  At year’s end, two bills were pending in the National Assembly:  one that would recognize same-sex civil unions and another that would give same-sex couples full marriage rights.  The Catholic Church, the Evangelical Alliance, and legislators of the evangelical National Restoration Party (PRN) opposed any recognition of same-sex partnerships.

Abortion was also a frequent topic of public debate involving religious groups during the year.  In the National Assembly, members of the Citizens’ Action Party sought to legalize abortion in limited cases, such as when the mother’s life is in danger.  PRN legislators presented a bill penalizing abortion as homicide.  The director of the Evangelical Alliance and the president of the Catholic Conference of Bishops supported PRN efforts and criticized any legislation that would permit abortion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to polling done by the University of Costa Rica, over the last two years, there was a demographic shift to fewer adherents of the Catholic Church.  Approximately half of those who left the Catholic Church joined evangelical groups, while the other half gave up religious affiliation altogether.  Political observers and religious leaders said that reaction to the IACHR’s advisory opinion on same-sex partnerships and the consequent public debate about the place of religion in the state may have contributed to this shift.  Catholic leaders noted that during the year they received a significant increase in requests from former members seeking to disaffiliate with the Catholic Church due to disagreements on social policy.

Arguments over same-sex partnerships and abortion on social media networks were occasionally accompanied by insults and remarks disparaging the beliefs of Catholics, other Christians, and nonbelievers.  For example, an article posted on Facebook reporting on the Catholic Church’s position on abortion received several comments with slurs targeting Catholic clergy, calling them pedophiles and hypocrites for their stance on social issues.  Both issues continued to prompt polarizing public debate, both in social and traditional media outlets.

The Jewish community reported instances of anti-Semitic comments on social media, in particular posts that questioned Israel’s right to exist and posts featuring anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Jewish people, stating that they controlled the economy, were accumulating excess wealth, and were practicing a new form of Nazism against Palestinians.

An interfaith dialogue among religious leaders continued, with participation of representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Lutheran, Jewish, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths.  Established in December 2017 as an initiative of the Ombudsman’s Office, the objective of the group was to promote interreligious dialogue among the country’s religious groups.  The group met in June at the Latin American Bible University for a forum focusing on Buddhism and Judaism.  In September the group met at the Buddhist Cultural Center to discuss the importance of nonviolent dialogue in the education system, with examples from the various religious traditions.  In November the group hosted an interfaith dialogue with indigenous groups.

Côte d’Ivoire

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 26.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent census (in 2014), 42 percent are Muslim, 34 percent are Christian, and 4 percent are adherents of indigenous religious beliefs.  Approximately 20 percent of the population did not respond to the census.  Many Christians and Muslims also practice some aspects of indigenous religious beliefs.

Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Harrists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Southern Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Copts, members of the Celestial Church of Christ, and members of the Assemblies of God.  Muslim groups include Sunnis (95 percent of Muslims), Shia, Sufis, and Ahmadis.  Other religious groups include Buddhists, Baha’is, Rastafarians, followers of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Bossonists, who follow traditions of the Akan ethnic group.

Traditionally, the north of the country is associated with Islam and the south with Christianity, although members of both religious groups live throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates a secular state that respects all beliefs and treats all individuals equally under the law, regardless of religion.  It prohibits religious discrimination in public and private employment and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship consistent with the law, the rights of others, national security, and public order.  It prohibits “propaganda” that encourages religious hatred.  It recognizes the right of political asylum in the country for individuals persecuted for religious reasons.

The Department of Faith-Based Organizations within the Ministry of Interior is charged with promoting dialogue among religious groups and between the government and religious groups, providing administrative support to groups trying to become established, monitoring religious activities, and managing state-sponsored religious pilgrimages and registration of new religious groups.

The law requires all religious groups to register with the government.  Foreign religious groups with a presence in the country require authorization from the Department of Faith-Based Organizations, and local religious associations need to register their associations with the same department.  Groups must submit an application to the Department of Faith-Based Organizations.  The application must include the group’s bylaws, names of the founding members and board members, date of founding, and general assembly minutes.  The department investigates the organization to ensure the religious group has no members or purpose deemed politically subversive and that no members are deprived of their civil and political rights.  There are no penalties prescribed for groups that do not register, but those that register benefit from government support such as free access to state-run television and radio for religious programming to groups that request it.  Registered religious groups are not charged import duties on devotional items such as religious books and rosaries.

Religious education is not included in the public school curriculum but is often included in private schools affiliated with a particular faith.  Religious groups running the schools normally provide opt-out procedures.  Religiously-affiliated schools are regulated in that teachers and supervisory staff must participate in training offered by the Ministry of National Education before the school receives accreditation from the Ministry.  According to an official June survey from the Directorate for Strategy, Planning, and Statistics of the Ministry of National Education, only 244 out of 1409 of Islamic schools are authorized by the Ministry of National Education and follow the national curriculum, as well as the Islamic curriculum.

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

Government Practices

Local authorities in Abidjan arrested Imam Aguib Toure, a Muslim preacher, on July 4 for two videos he had published on a popular social media site.  In the first one, he discouraged Muslim parents from enrolling their children in Christian schools.  In the second video, he criticized the increase in the cost of the Hajj since President Alassane Ouattara took office in 2010, as well as evictions of destitute persons in Abidjan.  He was charged on July 9 with xenophobia, discrimination, inciting hatred, and issuing an apology for terrorism.  The Higher Council of Imams of Cote d’Ivoire (COSIM), the principal organization of imams in the country, requested a diligent investigation and fair trial on July 18.  On August 6, the court granted the imam provisional release.

Authorities in Abidjan arrested evangelical preacher Israel N’Goran on August 1 while he was live on a social media site delivering what the authorities stated were xenophobic and tribalistic messages targeting the Dioula ethnic group and foreigners including Lebanese and Moroccans.  N’Goran said he considered them to be dangerous to society, and compared the Dioula to gangrene.  He was released from detention after receiving amnesty from the president on August 6.

Minister of Defense Hamed Bakayoko, who is Muslim, attended a Catholic church service in an impoverished neighborhood of Abidjan where he was seeking an electoral seat during the campaign for municipal elections on September 30.  He spoke about interreligious dialogue, his plan for the district, and his actions.  A significant number of Catholics stated they did not believe the church was the proper location for electoral discourse.  Archbishop of Abidjan Cardinal Jean Pierre Kutwa later apologized to the congregants.

The government continued to supervise and organize Hajj pilgrimages for Muslims and fund pilgrimages to Israel, Portugal, Spain, and France for Christians, as well as fund local pilgrimages for members of independent African Christian churches.  The government organized and transported 6,800 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj compared to 4,200 the previous year and funded pilgrimages for 942 Christians to Europe and Israel.  The government also assisted 2,155 Christians and adherents of traditional religions in their pilgrimages in the country and elsewhere in Africa.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A bishop from the United Methodist Church during the Church’s 13th Ordinary Annual Conference on March 18 called on the president to enable the repatriation of all citizens still in exile following disputed national elections in 2010 and to release all political prisoners.  He said that political leaders should put the nation’s interests and the people’s wellbeing ahead of their own.  On August 6, the president announced an amnesty for 800 persons linked to the post-electoral crisis, leading to the release of 300 individuals from detention.

Christian and Muslim religious leaders, civil society, and political leaders took part in the sixth Interreligious Conference for Peace hosted by the Sant’Egidio Community in Abidjan on October 21.  Local religious leaders stated they agreed to work together to fight the causes of conflicts, one of which they labeled as religious fanaticism.

Individuals regularly celebrated each other’s religious holidays by attending household or neighborhood gatherings, regardless of their own faith.  For example, in August Minister of Urban Areas Albert Francois Amichia, who is Christian, attended the Eid al-Adha celebration at the Treichville mosque with Muslim believers.

Dominican Republic

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2017 Latinobarometer survey, the population is 48 percent Catholic, compared with 57 percent in a 2015 Latinobarometer survey and 64 percent in 1995.  The same survey indicates 21 percent of the population is evangelical Protestant, compared with 13 percent in the 2015 survey, and 21 percent have no declared religion or identify as atheist or agnostic, compared with 13 percent in 2015.  Other faiths include Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, and nonevangelical Protestants.  The Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity estimated in March that evangelical Protestants make up 30 percent of the population, with the number of Pentecostals growing the fastest.

There are approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Muslims throughout the country.  Most of the approximately 350 members of the Jewish community live in Santo Domingo, with a small community in Sosua.  There are small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is.

Most Haitian immigrants are Catholic.  According to the Dominican National Statistics Office, in 2017 there were 497,825 Haitian immigrants in the country.  An unknown number practice Voodou or other Afro-Caribbean beliefs such as Santeria.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of “conscience and worship, subject to public order and respect for social norms.”  A 1954 concordat with the Holy See designates Catholicism as the official state religion and extends special privileges to the Catholic Church not granted to other religious groups.  These privileges include the special protection of the state in the exercise of Catholic ministry, exemption of Catholic clergy from military service, permission to provide Catholic instruction in public orphanages, public funding to underwrite some Catholic Church expenses, and exemption from customs duties.

To request exemption from customs duties, non-Catholic religious groups must first register as NGOs with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Finance.  Registration with the Attorney General’s Office, which applies to nonprofit organizations generally and is not specifically for religious groups, is a two-step process.  First, the organization must provide documentation of a fixed address and the names of seven elected officers, have a minimum of 25 members, and pay a nominal fee.  Second, the organization must draft and submit statutes and provide copies of government-issued identification documents for the board of directors.  After registering, religious groups may request customs duty exemption status from the Ministry of Finance.

The law provides for government recognition of marriages performed by religious groups registered with the Central Electoral Board.  The law requires churches to have legal status and presence in the country for at least five years, provide a membership list, and train clergy on how to perform marriages.  Churches are responsible for determining the legal qualification of couples, and they must record all marriages performed and make those lists available for government inspection.  Failure to comply with the regulations governing marriage can result in misdemeanor sanctions or fines.

The concordat grants the Catholic Church free access to prisons.  The government states it allows access to all faiths in prisons.  All faiths have the right to perform religious acts in prisons, in community or alone.

As part of the concordat with the Holy See, the law requires religious studies based on Catholic Church teachings in all public schools.  The concordat accords the Catholic Church the right to revise and approve textbooks used in public schools throughout the country.  The concordat also provides parents with the option of exempting their children from religious studies in public schools at both the elementary and secondary levels.  Private schools are exempt from the religious studies requirement; however, private schools run by religious groups may teach religious studies according to their beliefs.  A law mandating reading the Bible in public schools is not enforced.

The government imposes no immigration restrictions or quotas on religious workers.  Foreign missionaries may obtain a one-year multi-entry business visa through the Ministry of Foreign Relations after submitting a completed application form, original passport, two passport-size photographs, and a document offering proof as to the business activity from the institution or person in the country with whom the missionary is affiliated.  Foreign missionaries may renew the visa before the original one-year visa has expired.

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

Government Practices

Non-Catholic religious groups continued to report the government provided the Catholic Church significant financial support unavailable to them, including properties transferred to the Catholic Church and subsidies to the salaries of Catholic Church officials.

At the interfaith event in November, some of the 26 participants expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, the lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provides, and the treatment of non-Catholic churches as NGOs rather than as religious organizations under the law.

A non-Catholic religious organization said the government still required it to pay customs duties on imported food and other items and then apply for a refund instead of receiving an exemption as allowed by law.  Religious groups continued to report difficulties when applying for and receiving customs duty refunds from the Ministry of Finance.

In June the Ministry of Education signed agreements to incorporate 15 Christian schools, including non-Catholic Christian schools, into the national education system and provide them with teaching, administrative, and other support staff.  The agreements allowed these schools to continue offering the same religious instruction as before the agreements.  The voluntary transfer of the schools to state administration was the result of a 2014 presidential promise to spend 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on education.

In October a legislator introduced a resolution in the Congress of Deputies to enforce the law requiring the reading of the Bible in public schools, which would occur after raising the national flag and singing the national anthem.  One prominent legislator declared the resolution violated the constitution and the country’s status as a secular state, but many others declared strong support for it.  Legislative leaders sent the resolution to the education committee for further deliberation.

In December the minister of education told Catholic and Protestant religious leaders that he sought a “strategic alliance” between churches, schools, and the family as a means to reform the country’s education system.  He also invited church participation in improving the quality of education based on Christian values and principals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo and the Church of Jesus Christ cohosted an international conference, Religious Liberty as a Fundamental Right.  Participants emphasized the importance of laws and judges in ensuring religious liberty.

Ecuador

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2012 survey by the National Institute of Statistics and Census, the most recent government survey available, approximately 92 percent of the population professes a religious affiliation or belief.  Of those, 80.4 percent is Roman Catholic; 11.3 percent evangelical Christian, including Pentecostals; and 1.3 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Seven percent belongs to other religious groups, including Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, the Church of Jesus Christ, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Greek Orthodox-affiliated Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America, Presbyterians, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’is, spiritualists, followers of Inti (the traditional Inca sun god), and indigenous and African faiths.  There are also practitioners of Santeria, primarily resident Cubans.

Some groups, particularly those in the Amazon jungle, combine indigenous beliefs with Catholicism.  Pentecostals draw much of their membership from indigenous persons in the highland provinces.  There are Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country, with the highest concentrations in coastal areas.  Muslim, Church of Jesus Christ, Jewish, and Buddhist populations are primarily concentrated in large urban areas, particularly Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca.  Many evangelical Christian churches are not affiliated with a particular denomination.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants all individuals the right to practice and profess publicly and freely the religion of their choice and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  It states the government has a responsibility to “protect voluntary religious practice, as well as the expression of those who do not profess any religion, and will favor an atmosphere of plurality and tolerance.”  Individuals have the right to change their religion.  The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the country’s legal system.  The constitution grants the right of self-determination to indigenous communities, including provisions granting freedom to “develop and strengthen their identity, feeling of belonging, ancestral traditions and form of social organization.”

A 1937 agreement (concordat) with the Holy See accords juridical status to the Catholic Church and grants it financial privileges and tax exemptions.  Other religious groups must register as legal entities with the government under a separate 1937 religious law and a 2000 decree on religion.  If a religious group wishes to provide social services, it must also register under a 2017 executive decree regulating civil society.  The 2017 decree dictates how civil society organizations must register to obtain and maintain legal status.  Current regulations require individual religious congregations and organizations to conduct this registration process through the MOJ.

The National Secretary for Policy Management’s Office of Planning maintains a national database of legally recognized civil society organizations, including religious groups.  Registration provides religious groups with legal and nonprofit status.  An officially registered organization is eligible to receive government funding and exemptions from certain taxes.

To register as a religious group, the organization must present to the government a charter signed by all of its founding members and provide information on its leadership and physical location.  Three experts in religious matters appointed by the MOJ evaluate the application, in consultation with religious organizations already legally established in the country.  The 2017 decree does not specify the criteria for selection of religious experts.  The registration process is free.  Failure to obtain legal status through registration may result in the dissolution of the group and liquidation of its physical property by the government.  To register as a social or civil society organization, religious groups require the same documentation, as well as approved statutes and a description of the mission statement and objectives of the organization.  According to the MOJ, registrants must deliver the paperwork to the MOJ’s Quito office in person.

The law prohibits public schools from providing religious instruction, but private schools may do so.  Private schools must comply with Ministry of Education standards.  There are no legal restrictions specifying which religious groups may establish schools.

Foreign religious missionaries and volunteers must apply for a temporary residence visa to work in the country and present a letter of invitation from the sponsoring organization to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The letter must include a commitment to cover the applicant’s living expenses and detail the applicant’s proposed activities.  Applicants also must provide a certified copy of the bylaws of the sponsoring organization and the name of its legal representative as approved by the government.

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

Government Practices

On November 14, President Moreno signed an executive decree that formally dissolved the MOJ.  On August 21, he announced he would dissolve the MOJ as part of an ongoing government downsizing program, but he did not specify which government entity would assume the functions exercised by the MOJ.  The decree states that the SPM would assume responsibilities for issues related to religion and religious groups within 90 days.  According to an MOJ official, the government had begun transitioning functions to the SPM but had not finalized the changeover by year’s end.  The MOJ continued to manage the registration process during the transition, including the registration process for religious groups.  MOJ representatives said there was a reduction in personnel in their office, from seven analysts in 2017 to four, who reviewed registration paperwork.  They also confirmed the MOJ would continue to provide registration services to religious groups until the government formally reassigned such functions to another entity.

Many religious groups stated the registration process had been onerous and disruptive to their activities at times, but the difficulties were bureaucratic in nature.  Numerous leaders noted long processing delays started under the previous administration; one evangelical Christian leader cited an example of registration paperwork for legal representatives having taken two to three years to process.  A Muslim leader attributed the delays to a reduction in MOJ staff members in the processing office.  Many noted that the 2017 decree had not been in effect long enough to assess whether it had improved the registration process.  Guayaquil-based leaders said the administrative costs and registration delays occurred because the Guayaquil satellite office sent the registration forms to Quito for final processing.  Evangelical Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders agreed the delays and onerous requirements led many groups, especially small groups, not to apply for registration.  According to these leaders, unregistered groups often met in private homes.  Without a legal representative, groups were unable to open bank accounts or engage in formal land transactions.

The MOJ said it assisted approximately 36 individuals per day with the registration process for both religious and civil society organizations.  Training and in-person assistance were available only in Quito.  MOJ representatives said it took approximately one to three months to register as a social organization if the group correctly completed all paperwork the first time.  If paperwork contained errors and/or organizations did not respond to the MOJ with additional information in a timely manner, the registration process took approximately six months to one year.  They stated that the revised registration process under the 2017 decree made it easier for foreigners to start social groups and participate as legal representatives.  According to the MOJ, since 2010 the number of religious groups registered increased from approximately 2,000 to an estimated 3,560 religious groups.  Officials stated that approximately 1,140 were in the process of registration as of September.

Evangelical Christian and Catholic representatives expressed concern about their ability to teach children in their community about gender and family in a manner consistent with their beliefs.  They stated that a presidential decree, published on May 15, required private religious schools to teach a definition of gender not in line with their religious beliefs.  The original text of the decree required schools to teach the “mainstreaming of gender identity, new masculinity, women in their diversity, the prevention and eradication of violence against women, and the elimination of gender stereotypes.”  In response to religious groups’ stated concerns, President Moreno revised the decree on July 19.  The new text states that curriculum must teach “the equality of men and women in all political, economic, and social spheres, the socio-cultural construction of roles and values associated with the behavior of men free from sexism [machismo] or supremacy over women, the prevention and eradication of violence against women, the development of nondiscriminatory conduct, and the elimination of all forms of stereotypes…”  According to media reports, religious groups held peaceful marches in Quito and Guayaquil at the end of July to express their continued concerns about possible reforms to educational texts.

Jewish and Muslim leaders said customs regulations interfered with their ability to import kosher and halal foods, beverages, and plants for use in religious festivals.  A Jewish leader stated that problems arose from onerous paperwork, phytosanitary restrictions, and regulations limiting imports of certain plant and animal products.

At year’s end, a case filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and accepted for review in 2014 was still pending before the Constitutional Court.  The case involved a conflict in the northern town of Iluman between Jehovah’s Witnesses who wanted to build a new assembly hall and indigenous residents who opposed it.  Two lower courts had previously ruled in favor of the residents, concluding that their right to self-determination was a valid rationale for preventing the practice of religion.  Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that in 2017, they had reached an agreement with the indigenous community to continue their activities while the legal case was pending.

Numerous religious leaders stated that the Moreno government, which took office in May 2017, verbally expressed greater support for freedom of religion than the previous administration.  They said the Moreno government was more open to their opinions and did not restrict their ability to function in society, unlike the previous administration.

On October 30, President Moreno and Foreign Minister Jose Valencia joined the Jewish community in celebrating the 80th anniversary of its official founding in the country.  President Moreno gave remarks highlighting the positive contributions of the Jewish community.  On November 9, the Foreign Ministry hosted an event to honor and posthumously reinstate diplomat Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero, whom the government dismissed from his position as consul in Stockholm in 1942 for providing passports to Jews escaping the Holocaust.

A new interfaith working group including representatives from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities formed in October.  On November 27, President Moreno met with the group.  Members discussed their concerns about the National Assembly’s new draft education law and their interest in working with the government to address social issues.  They delivered a letter expressing their shared concerns about the education law.  They also discussed ideas for collaboration to improve the well-being of the nation through interfaith initiatives and faith-based outreach.  On November 28, President Moreno released a social media video acknowledging the positive meeting.  He stated, “It was heartwarming to note that for the first time in Ecuador, representatives from all of the churches and communities of faith met together to work on a project for his neighbor and to contribute to the education law reform.  We are forging a community united by spirituality!”

Representatives from interfaith group CONALIR, which includes representatives from the Adventist, Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant faith communities, stated they met with members of the National Assembly to promote a draft religious law, developed by a group of interfaith leaders and pending since 2009, to foster greater religious freedom and equality.  The draft law would revise the 1937 religion law and 2000 decree on religion.  CONALIR said it would create greater equality between other religious groups and the Catholic Church, which benefitted from a separate 1937 agreement with the Holy See that accorded juridical and tax exempt status to the Catholic Church.  CONALIR leadership stated that a new religious law should articulate the government’s commitment to equality for all religions, and reinforce the constitutional principle of freedom from discrimination based on religious beliefs.  Additionally, the group proposed updating the registration process for religious groups, and reforming tax and labor laws specifically to recognize the nonprofit status of all religious groups and their need to rely on volunteer labor for certain activities groups.  In August the group began conducting a series of human rights workshops on the importance of religious equality under the law.

Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders stated that the current administration had not forced any private religious schools to close during the year, unlike during the previous administration.  Church of Jesus Christ leaders reported no issues with opening new religious schools.  Catholic leaders noted that costs had kept them from re-opening previously closed schools in smaller and more rural communities.

All religious leaders said they were concerned about the elimination of the MOJ as the point of contact for religious groups and the uncertainty over which entity would regulate the registration process in the future.  They underscored the need for a religious ministry or office focused on religious issues in the government.  They also stated their opinion that religious issues were not a top priority among the many other pressing demands on the Moreno government.  CONALIR leadership said it regretted that the new human rights ombudsman had not released by the end of the year a public awareness video produced in 2017 on religious freedom.  The Ombudsman’s Office stated that the office was still reviewing an official study on religious freedom in the country before deciding whether to release the video.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Many religious leaders said that society exhibited a general lack of knowledge about religious traditions and practices outside of Catholicism, such as traditional female head coverings in the Islamic and Greek Orthodox faiths.  A Buddhist leader said that society frequently confused Hindu practices with Buddhist practices.  Baha’i leaders stated that individuals, but not institutions, had prejudices against minority religious groups.  Some religious leaders expressed concerns about what they considered an erosion of traditional religious values in issues such as gender identity and education.

Egypt

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 99.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is officially designated as Sunni Muslims and approximately 10 percent is recognized as Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent).  Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population and include Anglican/Episcopalian and other Protestant denominations, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches.  The Protestant community includes Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (Al-Mithaal Al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (Al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (Al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (An-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-day Adventist.  Jehovah’s Witnesses account for 1,000-1,500 people, according to media estimates, and there are also an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates.  Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population, or approximately 1,000,000.  Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000.  There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are seven Jews.  There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists or religious converts.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation.  The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime.  It describes freedom of belief as absolute.  The constitution limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world.  The grand imam is elected by Al Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term.  The president does not have the authority to dismiss him.  While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its 2018 budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($726.66 million).

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the grand mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out.  The mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the death sentence.

The constitution also stipulates that the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.  Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), depending upon their official religious designation.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) issues national identity cards that include official religious designations.  Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens.  Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash.  The minister of interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize.  The law states individuals may change their religion.  However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but not from Islam to any other religion.  In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government asserting its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.”  The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order.  Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints.  After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation.  In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims.  When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity, and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates that Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.  Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam.  Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men.  A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert.  If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved.  Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance.  In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled that applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature.  To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of Interior Religious Affairs Department.  The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace.  As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar.  The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities.  Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities.  The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries.  According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($2,800).  The penalty doubles for repeat offenders.  Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law.  A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines.  Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.  The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques.  Imams are subject to disciplinary action including dismissal for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

The prime minister has authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.”  Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art.  The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace.  The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates rather than the president.  The governor is to respond within four months; any refusal must include a written justification.  The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe.  The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches.  It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented.  Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area.  Construction of new churches must meet stringent land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques.  A 2001 cabinet decree includes a provision requiring that new mosques built after that date must be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.”  The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades.  Determinations of religious identity are based on official designations, not personal or parental decisions.  Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other.  A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including Christian-owned schools.  Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system which serves some two million students from elementary through secondary school using its own separate curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.”  The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) as penalties for discrimination.  If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($5,600).

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric.  Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence.  Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws.  In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens.  The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program entitled “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom.  It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights.  The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “no political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament.  However, by year’s end, parliament had not yet established such a commission.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

In February security forces launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS, in part to respond to a November 2017 attack on a mosque in Al-Rawda village in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals at worship; the mosque was reportedly attacked because it was frequented by Sufis.  Although the government reported significant successes in the campaign, ISIS attacks continued in North Sinai.

In November a court sentenced an alleged ISIS supporter to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  Authorities did not identify the defendant.

On July 12, police thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qalioubiya, near Cairo.  After encountering security forces, the attacker detonated an explosive vest in the vicinity of the church, killing a police officer and civilian.  On August 11, security forces foiled a suicide bombing at the Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Mostorod.  After being denied entry to the church, the bomber died when he exploded his suicide belt; no one else was injured.

During the year, courts imposed death sentences on several people convicted of killing Christians.  On February 12, a court confirmed a death sentence against the killer of Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef.  The killer stabbed Shehata to death in the Cairo suburb of El-Salaam City in 2017 and carved a cross on his forehead.  On April 1, the Cassation Court upheld the death sentence of the killer of liquor storeowner Youssef Lamei, who had confessed to slitting Lamei’s throat outside his store for selling alcohol in January 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people.  ISIS claimed responsibility.  International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and asserted the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In March media reported that Matthew Habib, a Christian military conscript who had complained to his family of persecution from superiors due to his religion, committed suicide while on duty.  Although the official cause of death was determined to be multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the family alleged that Habib had been killed by a more senior officer.

On January 31, the Giza misdemeanor court sentenced 20 individuals to one-year suspended jail sentences for an attack on an unlicensed Coptic church in Kafr al-Waslin village south of Cairo, carried out on December 22, 2017.  Each was fined 500 pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity, and vandalizing private property.  The court also fined the owner of the unlicensed church 360,000 pounds ($20,100) for building without a permit.  The Archdiocese of Atfih has reportedly applied for the Kafr al-Waslin Church to be legalized.

On January 2, press reported that the public prosecutor filed murder charges against an individual accused of killing 11 people on December 29, 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.  On December 1, the prosecutor general referred 11 additional suspects to trial for forming a terrorist group, murder, attempted murder, and other charges related to the attack.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, citing its 2016 report, reported in October that 41 percent of all blasphemy charges had been brought by authorities against the country’s Christian population

March 14, police in Beni Suef Governorate arrested social studies teacher Magdy Farag Samir on charges of denigrating Islam after he included wordplays in a set of questions for students about the Prophet Muhammad.  Samir was detained for 15 days while police investigated the charges.  A court acquitted him on April 19.

In December a court in Upper Egypt upheld a three-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Christian Abd Adel Bebawy for a Facebook post that allegedly insulted Islam.  Authorities arrested Bebawy in his home village of Minbal on July 6 and the original court passed the prison sentence in November.  Bebawy’s lawyers stated that he reported the hacking of his Facebook account in July and that the post was immediately deleted.  On July 9, reportedly in response to Bebawy’s social media posts, a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian-owned homes in Minbal.  Police arrested over 90 Muslim attackers, charging 39 with a variety of crimes related to the attack.

On May 3, police arrested atheist blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days.  Authorities accused Gaber of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube.  Police had earlier arrested Gaber on similar charges in 2015 and 2013.  In October Gaber tweeted that he had been prevented from leaving the country and that authorities had charged him with three additional felonies and that the charges now included blasphemy, contempt of religion, supporting homosexuality, and religious extremism.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), during several incidents of interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt from August 22 to 25, security forces delayed providing protection to Christians.  On August 22, in the village of Esna in Luxor Governorate, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest Christian worship in a church that was seeking legalization.  Following Friday prayers on August 24, the crowd gathered a second time.  While the police prevented this second gathering from escalating, local sources report that authorities arrested five Christians, who were charged with conducting religious rituals in an unlicensed church and incitement, and 15 Muslims.  All those arrested were released in September.  Also on August 24, a crowd gathered in the village of Sultan in Minya Governorate to protest efforts by a local church to seek official legalization.

Security forces arrested members of what they described as a terrorist cell in Nag’ Hammadi in Qena Governorate during Coptic celebrations for Easter in April.  Security forces increased their presence in Coptic institutions and communities around Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays.

Religious freedom and human rights activists said government officials sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the 2016 church construction law.  On April 14, a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church in Beni Meinin in Beni Suef Governorate.  The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.  Authorities arrested 45 Muslim and Christian residents of the village, and, following an agreement according to customary reconciliation procedures (a binding arbitration process, often criticized by Christians as discriminatory), all arrestees were released and the church remained unlicensed and closed.

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of sectarian violence committed in previous years.  Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  Authorities charged four people with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six others owned by Christians.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests, particularly in Upper Egypt.  In November the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to October, authorities shuttered nine churches that hosted religious services prior to the closure orders.  Four of these churches were closed during the year, with Copts denied access and religious services in them prohibited.  In July media reported that police closed a church in Ezbet Sultan after a series of protests and the destruction of Christian-owned property.  During one protest, Muslims reportedly chanted, “We don’t want a church.”

In a November report, EIPR documented 15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalization of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.  The churches had been functioning for several years and were well known to both state institutions and local residents.  EIPR’s report also documented 35 cases of violence since the church construction law was issued, not including incidents associated with the construction of new churches.

On August 22, in Zeneiqa village in Upper Egypt, police closed a church following protests by local Muslims against legalization of the church.  They arrested five Copts and five Muslims, plus an additional 10 Muslim residents during protests held a week later.  In March local mosque personnel in Al-Tod village near Luxor encouraged Muslims to protest the licensing of a church that had been in use for a decade.  Protestors built a wall to block access to the church.  Christians and Muslims took part in a customary reconciliation session led by Muslim elders and, reportedly under pressure, the Christians agreed to abandon their application for a church license.

According to official statistics, from September 2017 the government approved 783 of the 5,415 applications for licensure of churches.  According to a local human rights organization, the increased pace of legalization and construction of churches was causing sectarian tensions in some communities where Muslim citizens did not want a legal church in their village.

As it did in recent years, the government in October closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura.  The government explained the closure was due to construction, but multiple news reports described it as an attempt to discourage the celebration of Shia religious rituals.  The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.

In September the Ministry of Awqaf cancelled the preaching permit of prominent Salafi cleric Mohamed Raslan and banned him from delivering sermons for refusing to recite the official sermon written by the ministry.  The ministry reinstated his license after he apologized publicly and committed to follow the government’s weekly sermon.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

In May the government announced a policy to ban imams from preaching on Fridays at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques and restricted their use to daily prayers.  In a statement, the Ministry of Awqaf said the measure would prevent “fundamentalist” preaching during Ramadan.  The May announcement repeated a policy first announced in 2015 that resulted in the closure of 27,000 zawiyas and forbade preaching in them.  Authorities also increased the penalties for mosques using their loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

In October the Ministry of Awqaf announced that the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse in the country and cited the ministry’s “complete” control of Islam as expressed through “the media, lessons, seminars and [public] forums.”  Public issuances of fatwas were, according to a senior advisor at the Dar al-Iftaa, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, restricted to Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar University, 40 clerics from Dar al-Iftaa, and a small number of clerics affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf.  The ministry announced that any unauthorized cleric offering religious sermons or issuing fatwas would be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for “carrying out a job without a license.”

In September the Court of Urgent Matters suspended a July ruling by an administrative court that had allowed policemen with long beards to return to work.  The court upheld MOI regulations on facial hair and stated the government had an obligation to keep the police force a “secular organizational entity.”

During Ramadan in May the government put in place regulations governing the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan.  Authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

On June 22, a video showing adherents performing Sufi religious rituals in a mosque sparked demands on social media to ban Sufi rituals inside mosques.  In response, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended the mosque attendant for participating in the incident, and announced a public campaign to raise awareness of “correct Islam.”

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers.  However, Baha’i sources said the government refused requests for public religious gatherings.  According to members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, security officials engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which adherents were interrogated and sometimes threatened.  The National Security Services (NSS) also summoned members to their offices for interrogations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 3, a security officer who has interrogated and threatened its members in the past questioned a male Witness at length, asking numerous probing questions about the operations and activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.  In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Beni Suef and confiscated their religious materials.  NSS officers did the same with two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.

Twelve Baha’i couples filed lawsuits requesting recognition of their civil marriages, four of which were approved by October.  While Baha’i sources hailed the first issuance of a civil marriage license that took place in 2017, they reported that courts remained inconsistent in their rulings on the matter.  By year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.

In May the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that regulators must block the YouTube service for one month because of the availability of a video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.  A lower court had ordered in 2013 the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to block YouTube because of the video, but the decision had been appealed and the court’s ruling has not been implemented.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet.  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011 when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests.  The new Governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services.  Christians admitted at the entry-level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.  According to a press report, a senior Christian judge in line for promotion to the leadership of the Administrative Prosecution was reportedly denied the position in May due to her religion.  When a Muslim judge challenged the failure to promote her, he was dismissed.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities.  In January for the first time, a Christian was appointed as dean of the dental school of Cairo University.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

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

The Ministry of Education (MOE) stated that it continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students began instruction under the new curriculum.  According to the MOE, the new curriculum for subsequent grade levels would be introduced yearly.  Local English-language press reported in May that curriculum reform plans, aimed at encouraging tolerance, included a textbook for use in religious studies classes to be attended jointly by Muslim and Coptic Christian students.  Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religion classes.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa, whose ministry oversees Islamic studies courses in the country’s schools, announced the plan.  The press reported that the planned textbook drew criticism from conservative Muslims.

In January the grand mufti issued a fatwa that defined greeting Christians on Coptic Christmas as an act of righteousness.  During the same month, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church were “martyrs.”

In August Al-Azhar issued a statement criticizing ISIS for issuing fatwas justifying the killing of non-Muslims and stressed its prohibition.

In June the Ministry of Awqaf completed training in Quranic interpretation and other Islamic texts for 300 female preachers (wa’ezaat).  In July the government published an action plan for “renewing religious discourse” that included hiring and training imams and expanding the role of women in religious preaching.  The ministry opened a new training academy for preachers in October and announced that women could begin to serve as preachers in mosques and schools, serve on governing boards of mosques, and sing in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

In December President al-Sisi decreed that the government create an agency tasked with countering sectarian strife.  The new Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents would be headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs and composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the NSS, and the Administrative Oversight Agency.  The new committee was charged with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents, address them as they occur, and apply all antidiscrimination and antihate laws in carrying out these responsibilities.  The committee had the authority to invite ministers, their representatives, or representatives of concerned bodies to meetings.  The government stated that the strategy would include awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of religious tolerance, and possible mechanisms for dealing with individual incidents.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance.  In February the grand imam received a delegation from the Anglican Communion and stressed the importance of dialogue between religions.  In July the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury organized an interfaith conference in London for young Muslims and Christians.  In October Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, where they stressed their commitment to religious dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Media reported the attackers used automatic weapons to spray the buses indiscriminately, targeting men, women, and children.  The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.  Media reported that ISIS repeatedly vowed to attack the country’s Christians as punishment for their support of the government.  Following the attack, authorities stated they killed 19 individuals suspected of involvement in the assault in a shootout west of Minya.  The government did not present evidence to link these individuals to the attack, and a local human rights activist argued these shootings might have constituted extrajudicial killings.

On January 14, armed assailants killed a man in North Sinai upon discovering he was Christian, according to press.  Following a series of attacks against Christians in North Sinai that began in January 2017, more than 250 Christian families left the region, according to EIPR.  Displaced families reported they remained unable to return to their homes.

On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf in Beheira while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  The church had been used for religious services for three years, and had applied for a license in January 2017.  According to the press, calls to attack the church had come from a nearby mosque.  Police arrested 11 Muslims and nine Christians.  All of those arrested were released following a customary reconciliation session, and the church remained open.

There were reported incidents of mob action against, and collective punishment of, Christians.

On January 17, Muslim villagers attacked the houses of three Christian families in the village of Al-Dawar in Beheira after a Christian man was accused of attempting to sexually assault a Muslim woman, according to press.  Muslim villagers used stones and Molotov cocktails to attack local Christian property.  Police arrested the Christian accused of sexual assault and two of his relatives, but none of the Muslim attackers.  Following a customary reconciliation session attended by a number of parliamentarians, the village mayor and elders, it was agreed that the accused Christian would pay a fine and be expelled from the village.

In late August and early September local press reported Muslim residents of the village of Dimshaw Hashem in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt protested Christian religious services held in an unlicensed church, and looted four Christian-owned houses before setting them on fire.  The attack injured two Coptic villagers and a firefighter.  Coptic Orthodox Bishop Macarius told the press numerous Christian villagers had informed local police about an imminent attack and that the police failed to take action.  After the attack, police arrested and criminally charged multiple protesters, releasing them on September 27.  EIPR subsequently criticized authorities for pressuring Copts to accept customary reconciliation in addressing the attacks.  Referring to this case, Human Rights Watch stated that customary reconciliation “allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, while authorities offered no concrete future protections to the worshippers and their families.”

Similar to the previous year, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored customary reconciliation as a substitute to criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches.  However, customary reconciliation continued to take place without its participation.  Human rights groups and Christian community representatives said that the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system.  Human rights activists said that, as part of the process, Christians were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities.  According to the press, the country’s participation in the World Cup highlighted the absence of Christian players from the national team and major club teams.  The Christian community told the press clubs excluded Christian players from tryouts.  Press reported there were no Christian players on the national soccer team for more than 15 years.  A single Christian player played for one of the 18 top clubs the previous season.  Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the press that the lack of Christians in Egyptian soccer was “extraordinary.”

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.  In March exiled Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim told the press senior officials who maintained good relations with Christians were kafirs (infidels).  Dar Al-Iftaa condemned the statement, and said Ghoneim wrongly interpreted Islamic texts.  Television preacher Abdullah Roshdi said that “It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief.”  Dar al Iftaa and Al Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued.  Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned TV endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a June interview on a state-owned channel, law professor Nabil Hilmi said, “Jews control the money and the media,” adding that they have a 50-year plan to reach Mecca and Medina.

In May Chair of the Hebrew Language Department at Menoufia University, Professor Amr Allam, said on a weekly show on a state-owned channel that “Israeli violence…is embedded in the Jewish genes.”

Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements continued in the wake of the December 2017 U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  According to a MEMRI report, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb blamed Israel for terrorism in the Middle East in a January interview on a state-owned channel.  He described Israel as a “dagger plunged into the body of the Arab world,” and said that were it not for “Zionist entity abuse…the Middle East would have progressed.”  He said Arab infighting worked to the advantage of Israel, which he claimed would “march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina].”

In January Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church co-sponsored a conference addressing terrorism.  Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, secretary general of the Egyptian Family House, an Al-Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church initiative created to send religious leaders to defuse community tensions following sectarian violence, called for religious scholars to challenge terrorism and include education to protect future generations from what he termed the mistaken ideas of extremism.  He stated that all Muslims suffered from the consequences of terrorism.

El Salvador

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a May survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 45.9 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, 35.5 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 14.3 percent with no religious affiliation.  Approximately 4.4 percent state “other,” which includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.  A small segment of the population adheres to indigenous religious beliefs, with some mixing of these beliefs with Christianity and Islam.  Muslim leaders estimate there are approximately 20,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion.  It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The ombudsman for human rights monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for violation of the free exercise of religion.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects.  The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma.  Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention.  Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years.  There were no prosecutions under this law during the year.

The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of president, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions.  Members of the clergy may not belong to political parties.  The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.

A 2016 law defines gangs as terrorist groups.  A 2014 law restricts support of, and interaction with, gangs, including by members of clergy; however, rehabilitation and ministry activities are legal.

The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government.  The constitution gives legal status to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements.  Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship.  To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) in the Ministry of Governance.  The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, functions of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues.  DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law.  Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette.  DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.

By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution.  Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas.  Religious groups must register in order to be eligible for this special residence visa for religious activities.

Public education is secular.  The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support.  Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools.  Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion.  All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.

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

Government Practices

On October 23, soon after the Catholic Church declared Salvadoran Archbishop Romero a saint, Judge Rigoberto Chicas issued an arrest warrant for Alvaro Rafael Saravia, a former military captain suspected of killing Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.

On April 17, a court ordered the attorney general to bring new charges against former President Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killing of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador.  The court overturned a 2000 ruling that the statute of limitations expired in the case.

Clergy and faith-based NGO workers said the government sometimes arbitrarily detained, questioned, or searched their person because of their ministry work with active and former gang members.  Some religious leaders stated they avoided violence prevention and rehabilitation efforts, fearing prosecution or being perceived as sympathetic to gangs, even though courts had ruled that rehabilitation efforts were not illegal per the constitution.  Clergy said police sometimes mistakenly detained young congregants and youth leaders from several Christian denominations as suspected gang members.

The Legislative Assembly passed a reform bill on August 16 making permanent the penitentiary reforms commonly known as “extraordinary measures” temporarily in effect since 2016.  The bill allows restricting nongovernmental access to prisons, including access of clergy in certain cases, such as when a prisoner loses visitation privileges because of misconduct.  This legislation followed increasing reports of gang members who were also evangelical Protestant pastors gaining entrance to prisons and functioning as couriers between incarcerated gang leaders and gang members outside the prisons.  In some prisons, the government encouraged religious organizations to work with prisoners to persuade them to renounce gang life.  The government also consulted with and jointly implemented rehabilitation and reinsertion programs with faith-based organizations.

The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights again reported it had not received notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 141 new requests for registration of religious groups from January through August 29.  Of these, the Ministry of Governance approved 55, and 84 were pending.  According to government officials, two religious entities did not complete the registration process.  The ministry reported it had denied one application due to the group’s lack of required documents.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to international news reports, on March 29, unidentified armed individuals stopped Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez and parishioners in San Miguel while traveling to Mass.  The group released the parishioners but abducted and later shot and killed Vasquez.  By year’s end, authorities had not detained anyone for the crime.

On July 15, according to local news reports, MS-13 gang members killed Protestant pastor Jose Isaac Garcia Zaldana after he reportedly convinced approximately six gang members to leave the gang and join his congregation.  According to media, days before his killing, gang members beat him in the street, and a police officer threatened to kill him after he witnessed the officer smoking marijuana with known gang members.

According to media reports, on July 25, members of the Barrio 18 gang (also called the 18th Street gang) attempted to enter an evangelical Protestant church in Santa Cruz Michapa and remove a congregant during a church service.  The pastor resisted, barring the door before shooting and killing one of the assailants.

Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders, leaders of other Christian denominations, and statisticians and criminology researchers continued to state that clergy sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang-controlled territory throughout the country due to fear of crime and violence.  According to media reports, MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang members beat and killed pastors who actively encouraged gang members to leave their gangs.  In the departments of Ahuachapan, Cabanas, Cuscatlan, La Libertad, La Paz, La Union, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Salvador, San Vicente, Sonsonate, and Usulutan, gang members controlled access in and around communities, and there were reports that they displaced church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations.  Pastors said congregants could not attend religious services if they had to cross ever-shifting boundaries that gangs had arbitrarily established that used addresses on national identification cards to identify outsiders.

According to media, criminals continued to target congregants in violent muggings outside of churches.  On May 6, an unidentified individual stabbed a congregant who refused to turn over his cell phone as he and his family were leaving the El Calvario Church in San Salvador.  There were also continuing reports of gang members extorting organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, demanding payments in exchange for allowing them to operate in some territories.  According to media reports, gangs demanded churches divert charitable items to their families.  Reports of criminals targeting churches, stealing religious relics and other valuable cultural items, and violently assaulting parishioners continued.  Media reported that in September unidentified individuals stole from El Calvario Church in San Salvador one of the oldest religious figurines in the country.

Religious leaders continued to participate in the government-led National Security Plan, including in the monitoring and implementation of the plan, which the government enacted in 2015.  This effort linked community leaders, law enforcement personnel, and government officials in 50 municipalities with the highest levels of violence throughout the country to prevent and reduce that violence through joint efforts to improve education, social assistance, economic development, and security.  Religious leaders participated alongside local leaders of media, unions, academics, and others in the municipal and national councils to help with efforts to improve security in their communities.

According to representatives of the Lutheran Church, interfaith groups continued to meet throughout the year and helped reinforce what they said was commonly held societal respect for the contributions of the country’s religious communities.  The Religions for Peace collective, comprising Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish, and indigenous representatives, worked together on the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace, focusing on reintegration programs for all prisoners, regardless of religious affiliation, after release from incarceration.

Members of the LGBTI community said they faced rejection and discrimination within their own congregations.  The Anglican Church stated it would accept LGBTI members without preconditions such as celibacy promises that some other churches reportedly demanded of some LGBTI congregants.

Ethiopia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 108.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  The most recent census, conducted in 2007, estimated 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOC, 34 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 19 percent belong to Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups.  The overall population, however, has since changed significantly, and observers in and outside the government state those numbers are not necessarily representative of the present composition.  The EOC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions.  Established Protestant churches are strongest in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, Gambella, and parts of Oromia.  Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions.  The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000 and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in the Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs.  It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law in order to protect public safety, education, and morals, as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion.  The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another.  The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

The SOE put in place on February 16 and lifted on June 5 included provisions affecting religious activities such as the requirement for authorization from the SOE Command Post for public gatherings and a prohibition on chanting political slogans during religious holidays.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches.  The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols.  Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity, and 15 for registration as a ministry or association.  During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper and, if there are no objections, registration is granted.

Unlike other religious groups, the EOC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force.  Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery.  Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits.  Religious groups must renew their registration at least every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports.  Activity reports must describe evangelical activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state.  The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays for workers to attend Islamic prayers.  Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values.  The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques.  The Charities and Societies Agency, an agency of the government accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction.  The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

A government proclamation prohibits certain charities, societies, and associations, including those associated with faith-based organizations that engage in rights-based advocacy, and prevents civil society organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.  Rights-based advocacy includes activities promoting human and democratic rights or equality of nations, nationalities, peoples, genders, and religions; protecting the rights of children or persons with disabilities; advancing conflict resolution or reconciliation; and enhancing the efficiency of the justice system or law enforcement services.  Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

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

Government Practices

On January 20, during Orthodox Christian Epiphany celebrations, also known as the Timket festival, security forces fired teargas in Woldia town, North Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region, on a group of youth who, while following a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (Tabot), the most sacred item in the church, shifted to political messaging in their cheers and songs, according to media reports.  The Tabot fell to the ground during the incident, after which the youths threw rocks at the security forces.  According to an August 9 report by independent rights group Human Rights Council (HRCO), government security forces shot and killed eight and wounded 16 followers of the EOC during the protest.  Subsequently, residents of Woldia and nearby towns Kobo, Robit, Mersa, Wurgessa and Dessie staged protests, which the report stated turned violent; according to the HRCO, security forces killed eight of those protesters and injured nine others.  Government officials promised to investigate the incident, but as of year’s end there was no public report of findings or of anyone being held accountable.

The government released Ahmedin Jebel and his co-defendants from Kality Prison on February 14.  Ahmedin, a member of the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a group formed in 2011 to protest the government’s interference in religion and to advocate for the resolution of Muslim grievances, was arrested in 2012 along with several other activists.  The government brought terrorist charges against him and several codefendants, and they were found guilty.  In August 2015, the court sentenced Ahmedin to 22 years in prison.  Prior to his release, he was one of the few Muslim activists who remained in jail following the pardoning of several other detainees in recent years.

The SOE made protests illegal for four months.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  No religious group reported repression of religious freedom under the SOE.

Reports of government imposition or dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings (a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam) declined during the year.

The Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within the Ministry of Peace reported 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations were registered as of late in the year.

The EIASC remained the lead religious organization for the country’s Muslims, managing religious activities in the approximately 40,000 mosques and annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca.  Some Muslims stated there was continued government interference in religious affairs, and some members of the Muslim community stated the EIASC lacked autonomy from the government.

Protestants continued to report that local officials discriminated against them with regard to religious registration and the allocation of land for churches and cemeteries.

On August 1, the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to Ethiopia after 27 years of exile in the United States, to reunite with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation ended 26 years of schism in the Orthodox Church.  Following the reconciliation, the two patriarchs were designated as equal heads of the reunited church, with Abune Merkorios assuming spiritual leadership and Abune Mathias assuming administrative leadership.  Media reported that Prime Minister Abiy played a central role in the mediation efforts by tasking mediators, and by personally attending and addressing a mediation conference in Washington D.C.

In collaboration with the government-sanctioned rights body Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an inquiry committee of the EOC on August 8 reinstated 300 priests of the Addis Ababa Diocese, who were suspended in 2016 by the diocesan leadership.  In addition to concluding the priests should be paid their two-year salary in full, the committee dismissed 14 individuals, including the manager of the Addis Ababa Diocese, for illegally suspending the priests and violating their rights.

On July 3, Prime Minister Abiy initiated an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community by bringing together leaders of the EIASC and the Muslim Arbitration Committee (MAC), previously rival groups.  The prime minister’s office stated the government maintained its neutrality when arbitrating between the two groups.  In a joint meeting, the two sides apologized to each other and pledged to resolve their disputes.  They agreed and set up a committee of nine members, three from each group as well as three elders and religious scholars.

On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after more than two decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media that they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and help build the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 4, according to national and international media reports, an organized group of Muslim youth killed six priests and burned down at least eight EOC churches in the Somali Regional State during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.

Participants at the annual Irreecha festival in late September celebrated peacefully, free of the violence that marred the event in 2016.  The PM’s office issued the following statement: “As we celebrate Irreecha, let’s all cherish our rich cultural heritages and unite in a shared purpose to build a bright future for our children.”

The IRCE, an organization established by seven religious institutions and operating independently from the government and whose mission is to promote interfaith harmony throughout the country, reported that major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

In May Muslim community leaders said that Islam in the country was threatened by internal fracturing due to discord within the community.

The EIASC expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community.  The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

Fiji

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 926,000 (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2007 census, approximately 64.5 percent of the population is Christian, 28 percent Hindu, and 6.3 percent Muslim.  The largest Christian denomination is the Methodist Church.  Other Protestant denominations account for 10.4 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 9.1 percent, and other Christian groups 10.4 percent.  There are small communities of Baha’is, Sikhs, and Jews.

Religious affiliation runs largely along ethnic lines.  According to the 2007 census, most iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) citizens, who constitute 57 percent of the population, are Christian.  The majority of the country’s traditional chiefs belong to the Methodist Church, which remains influential among indigenous people, particularly in rural areas where 49 percent of the population lives.  Most Indian Fijians, who account for 37 percent of the total population, are Hindu, while an estimated 20 percent are Muslim and 6 percent Christian.  Approximately 60 percent of the small Chinese community is Christian.  The small community of mixed European and Fijian ancestry is predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.  The government may limit these rights by law to protect the freedoms of others, or for reasons of public safety, order, morality, health, or nuisance.  The constitution also mandates separation of religion and state.  Citizens have the right, either individually or collectively, in public and private, to manifest their religion or beliefs in worship, observance, practice, or teaching.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation, and laws make inciting hatred or “disaffection” against religious groups a criminal offense.  The constitution provides that individuals may not assert religious belief as a reason for disobeying the law.  The constitution places limits on proselytizing on government premises and at government functions.

By law, religious groups must register with the government through trustees who may then hold land or property for the groups.  To register, religious bodies must submit applications to the registrar of titles office.  Applications must include names and identification of the trustees, signed by the head of the religious body to be registered, a copy of the constitution of the proposed religious body, land title documents for the land used by the religious body, and a registration fee of 2.30 Fiji dollars ($1).  Registered religious bodies may receive an exemption from taxes after approval from the national tax agency, on the condition they operate in a nonprofit and noncompetitive capacity.  By law, religious bodies that hold land or property must register their houses of worship, including their land, and show proof of title.  There is no mention in the law of religious organizations that do not hold land.

Permits are required for any public meeting on public property organized by religious groups, outside of regular religious services and houses of worship.

There is no required religious instruction under the law.  Private or religious groups sometimes own or manage school properties, but the Ministry of Education administers and regulates the curriculum.  The law allows religious groups the right to establish, maintain, and manage places of education, whether or not they receive financial assistance from the state, provided the institution maintains educational standards prescribed by law.  The law permits noncompulsory religious instruction in all schools, enabling schools owned and operated by various religious denominations but receiving government support to offer religious instruction.  Schools may incorporate religious elements, such as class prayer, as long as they do not force teachers to participate, and students may be excused should their parents request it.  The government provides funding and education assistance to public schools, including schools owned and operated by religious organizations, on a per pupil basis.  Some schools maintain their religious and/or ethnic origin, but they remain open to all students.  According to the law, the government ensures free tuition for primary and secondary schools.

The country ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in August, and the covenant entered into force in November.

Government Practices

On May 22, the Suva High Court acquitted three staff members of the Fiji Times newspaper and the author of a letter to the editor on charges of sedition for violating a law that prohibits publishing articles that incite and cause dislike, hatred, and antagonism toward any community.  The charges stemmed from a letter to the editor published in 2016 in the Fiji Times’ indigenous language edition that prosecutors originally said incited communal antagonism against the Muslim community.

In October the Fiji Times reported that in the run-up to national elections in November, the majority of political parties said race and religion were issues that mattered to the people and were raised and expressed by the people.  Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) said the prime minister was wrong in suggesting that SODELPA was “for the iTaukei,” (who are mostly Christian).  Rabuka said his party affirmed the freedom and dignity of all ethnicities and religions.

According to the Fiji Sun, 60 percent of 1,000 persons interviewed in an October poll said the opposition was using race or religion in its election campaign.  In July the Fiji Sun reported a Nukuloa resident said a provisional candidate of the National Federation Party opposition told him the attorney general, who is Muslim, will “make everyone a Muslim” if the governing Fiji First Party won in the election.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and other cabinet ministers continued to emphasize religious tolerance during public addresses at home and overseas.  They stated the country is a multifaith nation with religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution and it must unite to defend the rights of citizens to practice their religion.  Prior to its ratification, in May the parliament held public consultations on the ICCPR, including treaty provisions on religious freedom, with civil society and human rights organizations, political parties, and the public.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January the Hindu organization Shree Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha increased security at Hindu temples because of four acts of vandalism.  The Council of Churches, government, and police issued statements condemning the acts.  No arrests were made.

The Fiji Sun reported the country experienced a proliferation of anti-Muslim comments on social media in the lead-up to the November 14 national election.

In November some Catholic parishes celebrated Diwali at a special Mass they stated was to show respect to Hindus.  Archbishop Peter Loy Chong said such a Mass would be held at the cathedral and stated, “Fiji is blessed with a diversity of religious traditions.  May our religious diversities be a source of strength, unity, and richness.”  He added that religion had public value and could not be confined to the private sphere.

Also in November interfaith leaders teamed up in campaigns to mark the “16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women and Children.”  The campaign also included a 60-second commercial showing church leaders naming gender-based violence as a sin and which was shown in cinemas and on national television.

The Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Hindu and Muslim groups operated numerous schools, including secondary schools, which were eligible for government subsides based on the size of the student population.

Gabon

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  Demographic studies do not track religious affiliation, and estimates from religious leaders and government agencies vary widely.  The Episcopal Conference of Gabon estimates approximately 80 percent of the population is Christian.  Of the Christian population, approximately two-thirds are Roman Catholic and one-third Protestant.  The High Council of Islamic Affairs estimates approximately 10 percent is Muslim, including many noncitizen residents with origins in West Africa.  The remaining 10 percent of the population practices animism exclusively or does not identify with any religious group.  Many individuals practice a syncretic faith that combines elements of Christianity with traditional indigenous faiths, Voodoo, or animism.  There is a very small number of Jews.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the state as secular and establishes separation of religion and state.  It prohibits religious discrimination and holds all citizens equal before the law, regardless of religion.  The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the free practice of religion, and the right to form religious communities that may govern and manage their affairs independently, “consistent with public order.”  The constitution stipulates religious communities whose activities are contrary to law or promote conflict among ethnic groups may be banned.

The law requires all associations to register, including religious groups.  Registered groups are eligible for exemptions from fees for land use and construction permits.  To register, a group must present to the MOI copies of its founding statutes and internal rules, a letter attesting to publication of these documents in the applicable local administrative bulletin, a formal letter of request for registration addressed to the minister of interior, a property lease, the police records of the group’s leaders, and the group’s bank statements.  The registration fee is 10,000 CFA francs ($17).  Registered religious groups must also provide the MOI with proof of nonprofit status to receive exemptions from local taxes and customs duties on imports.  The MOI maintains an official registry of religious groups.

The constitution states parents have the right to choose their children’s religious education.  The state provides for public education based on “religious neutrality.”  Public schools are secular and do not provide religious instruction.  Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant groups operate primary and secondary schools, in which representatives of religious groups give religious instruction.  These schools must register with the Ministry of Education, which ensures they meet the same standards as public schools.

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

Government Practices

The MOI reported it generally processed registration requests from religious groups within one month and estimated it rejected more than 100 such applications during the year, compared with more than 40 in the 2016-17 period.  Ministry officials described the religious groups it rejected as often “one-man operations,” practicing a mixture of Christianity and traditional animist beliefs.  Their difficulty with registration usually concerned gathering the appropriate documents, according to ministry officials.  In addition, there was anecdotal evidence of an increase in “fake pastors” seeking to defraud their followers.  The MOI emphasized the necessity for all groups to register and no longer allowed unregistered groups to operate freely.  Unregistered groups charged with fraud or other illegal activity were most likely to be sanctioned.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic leaders met regularly, attended each other’s major festivals, and worked together to promote religious tolerance.  The interfaith dialogues and activities included discussion of religious issues.

In November Archbishop of Libreville Basile Mve Engone and Ali Akbar Onanga Y’Obegue, Special Adviser of the head of the Muslim community in the country, called upon their respective religious communities to form a prayer chain for a swift recovery of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who had fallen ill.

Georgia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) at 2.9 percent.  According to the census, Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference constitute the remaining 3 percent of the population.

Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected.  Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC.  A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers).  Ethnic Azerbaijanis are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli.  Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast, both of which are predominantly Sunni.  Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in Samtskhe-Javakheti.  Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the AAC and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

According to a census reportedly conducted in 2016 by the de facto government of Abkhazia, there are 243,564 residents of Abkhazia.  A survey reportedly conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent Muslim, 8 percent atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions.  The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.

According to a 2015 census reportedly conducted by the de facto government of South Ossetia, there are 53,000 residents of South Ossetia.  Estimates indicate the majority of the population practices Christianity, followed by Islam and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

A new constitution went into effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the GOC and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion.  Like the previous constitution, it prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion.  It also continues to prohibit public and political associations that create religious animosity.  The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.

The previous and new constitutions recognize the GOC’s special role in the country’s history, but stipulate the GOC shall be independent from the state and relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (also called a concordat).  The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch, exemption of GOC clergy from military service, and a consultative role in government, especially in education.  The concordat states some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s consultative role in education.

A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a Legal Entity of Public Law (LEPL) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition when conducting activities, partial tax exemptions, and the right to own property and open bank accounts.  Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.

To acquire LEPL status, the law requires religious organizations to register with the government.  To register, religious groups must have historic ties to the country and recognition from Council of Europe member states as a religious organization.  In addition, an organization registering for LEPL status must submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and governing body.  The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered under LEPL status.  Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.

The tax code does not consider religious activities to be economic activities, and grants registered religious groups partial tax exemptions for donations.

Until a July Constitutional Court ruling, the GOC was exempt from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including the payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property.  Moreover, the Law on State Property states that no religious organization registered as an LEPL, except the GOC, could acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale.  The law also states a denomination registered as a nonprofit organization could purchase state property and only grants the GOC the right to acquire state-owned agricultural land free of charge.

In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional in a case brought by NGOs on behalf of nine religious groups.  The court’s ruling mandated legislative changes that would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31.  As of the end of the year, parliament had taken no action to implement legislation on the court’s ruling.

The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization, although the code provides no definition for “establishment.”  Violations are punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both.  Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim.  In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and damages caused.  In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, offenders may face up to five years in prison.  Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by fine, correctional work for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years.

By law, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the PDO serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom.  The PDO’s Tolerance Center coordinates the PDO’s Council of Religions and Ethnic Minorities, carries out educational activities, and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia.

SARI distributes government compensation to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and AAC religious organizations registered as LEPLs for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”  According to SARI, its mandate is to promote and ensure a peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance.  According to its website, SARI’s stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for the government, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations.  SARI also issues recommendations to relevant state institutions on approval of construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations.

Although the law states public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions and authorizes the state to pay for GOC religious schools.  As of December, however, the GOC had not taught any religious studies classes in public institutions.  The law states students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals in schools “of their own accord” to receive religious education, but only after school hours.  Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process.  In practice, however, NGOs and non-GOC organizations report that GOC clergy often visit classes during academic hours, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators.  The law includes no special regulations for private religious schools.

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

Government Practices

In March the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party withdrew a draft constitutional amendment that critics said would have allowed the government to interfere in religious affairs based on national security grounds.  The Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission), as well as NGOs and local religious organizations, criticized the draft amendment.  Parliament revised the language and introduced a new amendment that did not include the provision on national security as a justification for interference in religious affairs.  The Venice Commission positively assessed the revised language and parliament passed the new amendment.

In April a member of parliament from the Alliance of Patriots political party introduced a draft of a “blasphemy law” that would criminalize “insults to religious feelings.”  Although the draft generated significant discussion about religious sentiment, free speech, and the “defense” of Georgia’s traditions and history, parliament ultimately did not pass the legislation.

The introduction of the draft bill followed an incident in March, when protesters attacked two Rustavi 2 journalists after one “insulted [their] religious feelings” with an on-air joke that involved Jesus Christ.  Authorities arrested six individuals on charges of group hooliganism and an investigation of threats against the journalist was ongoing at year’s end.

In April the government fined a condom production company for including on its products a design of medieval Queen Tamar, whom the GOC considers a saint.  The judge said the design was “unethical” and charged the firm with an administrative offense under the “Law on Distribution of Advertisement.”

NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to influence the NGO All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including the appointment of AMAG religious leaders.

The PDO reported it received 19 accounts of violence on the ground of religious intolerance during the year, 14 more than in 2017.  The PDO also noted that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved.  The 2018 cases all pertained to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Church members accused the relevant authorities of lacking the will to investigate these cases.

During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) investigated 23 cases involving alleged religiously motivated hate crimes.  The CPO, however, investigated none of these cases during the year, as compared to seven such cases in 2017.  Of the MoIA investigations, one concerned unlawful interference with the activities of a religious association; one, damage or destruction of property; one, damage or destruction of property together with persecution; five, unlawful interference with the performance of a divine service; 14, persecution; and one, abuse of official authority.

The NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) assessed that the MoIA was correctly applying proper articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred had improved since 2017.  TDI reported, however, that several cases from previous years remained pending.

Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year:  Christian Church Spring of Life, Armenian-language Christian Church of Gospel Faith, Evangelical-Christian Centralized Religion Organization First Nazareth Church, International Orthodox Laz-Khalibian Kharibian Catacomb Church, Salvation Army in Georgia, the Light of the Evangel, and Multinational Church of Marneuli.  Authorities suspended the registration of the Georgian Christian-Evangelical Church New Life due to legal issues with its application.

Most prisons reportedly continued to have GOC chapels but no areas for nondenominational worship.  According to SARI, Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, services remained available upon request in the military and in prisons.

According to the PDO’s Tolerance Center, non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with the Batumi mosque.  The center continued to attribute the resistance to what it termed a general societal bias in favor of the GOC.  According to TDI, although the law provides for equal treatment for applicants seeking construction permits, representatives of religious minority groups were often subject to discrimination.  TDI previously stated municipalities issued construction permits, although religious minorities often faced obstacles due to the municipalities’ discriminatory approaches.  TDI also noted the “problematic role” of SARI in the process, which “without a legitimate purpose and legal basis,” interfered with the authority of local self-governance.

In January the AAC appealed the National Agency of Public Registry’s decision to register as GOC property a church the AAC has claimed ownership of since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  As of the end of the year, the appeal remained under review by the courts.  The AAC continued to request restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property.  The AAC reported it operated 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them.  The AAC petitioned SARI for ownership and/or right of usage of 20 of the churches in 2015 and for the remaining churches during the year.  SARI’s response remained pending at year’s end.

Muslim community members said there was a lack of transparency around government decisions on mosques and their construction.  The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara.  Muslim leaders and local and central government authorities remained unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution to address overcrowding in the state-owned mosque in Batumi.  NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to exert influence over the NGO Administration of Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including through the selective transfer of land to AMAG and the appointment of AMAG religious leaders.  The potential transfer of land to AMAG rather than local religious organizations continued to be a source of tension, including in Batumi.  A number of Sunni Muslim groups also were critical of AMAG for its attempt to represent all Muslim communities in the country within one organization regardless of denomination.

In February Batumi City Court held its first hearing of the New Mosque Construction Fund’s 2017 appeal of Batumi City Hall’s decision in 2017 to deny the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned.  In April the new mayor of Batumi announced he wanted to negotiate with the fund to find a resolution.  The mayor outlined several conditions to allow the construction, including that the fund retract its appeal from the courts and give the land acquired for the mosque to AMAG, which would later apply for the necessary permits.  The fund rejected the requests and refused to continue negotiations.  Parallel to this, the fund appealed Batumi City Hall’s decision to impose a fine of 3,000 lari ($1,100) for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land.  As of December court hearings had not resumed on either case.

Construction continued on a new mosque promised by SARI and AMAG in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti.  The construction resulted from a 2017 SARI commission recommendation that the government transfer ownership of a building claimed by local Muslims and the GOC to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation and provide the local Muslims an alternative plot for a new mosque.  The disputed historical building has been fenced off and protected as a cultural heritage monument.  The PDO stated the SARI commission failed to establish the origin and ownership of the building.  In April the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) addressed the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of the Mokhe Muslims and stated the government’s discriminatory restitution policy towards minority religious groups constituted a violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and was emblematic of the government’s more general restitution policy.

The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites, increasing funding compared to the previous year.  The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, now housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2,483,300 lari ($930,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, including 145,000 lari ($54,300) for design drafts and 2,338,300 lari ($876,000) for rehabilitation, conservation, and infrastructure development.

The EMC appealed to the Supreme Court a Kutaisi Court of Appeals ruling that the MoIA did not discriminate against Muslims by failing to prevent vandalism in 2014 against a planned Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti.  The EMC also submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on “the prolonged and discriminatory obstruction of boarding schools for Kobuleti Muslim students,” although the Supreme Court must rule on the case before the ECHR can accept it.  As of December protests by the Orthodox community had prevented local Muslims from installing sewage infrastructure for the boarding school, which had not yet opened.

TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology in religion courses, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytization.  The Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department continued to be responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior.  According to a TDI report, while the law governing general education provides for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination, religious education in public schools persisted.

The government distributed 25 million lari ($9.36 million) to the GOC in compensation for “material and moral damages” inflicted upon it during the Soviet period.  In addition, in accordance with a 2014 parliamentary resolution allowing the government to compensate Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as LEPLs, SARI disbursed compensation funds totaling 4.5 million lari ($1.69 million) to those four religious groups in coordination with the Ministry of Finance.  SARI reported compensation remained the same as the previous year and was as follows:  2.75 million lari ($1.03 million) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 550,000 lari ($206,000) to the RCC; 800,000 lari ($300,000) to the AAC; and 400,000 lari ($150,000) to the Jewish community.  In making the disbursements, SARI stated the compensation was of “partial and of symbolic character,” and stated the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of denominations during the selection process.  NGOs continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups and to question the criteria the government used to select the four denominations for compensation.

In accordance with the government human rights action plan for 2018-2020, SARI trained approximately 1,000 students, journalists, and representatives from religious organizations to raise awareness of human rights, freedom of religion, and other fundamental freedoms.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A Council of Europe report from November found that, after LGBT individuals, Georgians thought Jehovah’s Witnesses were most likely to face discrimination.  The PDO reported that a large number of the alleged hate crimes reported to it over the years were cases of violence or property damage committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Despite continued requests from Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, authorities generally classified such cases as cases of violence rather than persecution on religious grounds.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported approximately eight assaults during the year, down from 10 in 2017.  The attacks targeted 12 individuals, and all included physical assaults, verbal insults, and property damage, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In one case in May, unidentified attackers shot at a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Gori, damaging the front door, and spray-painted “Believe in our God” (in Georgian) on the outer wall.  As of December the MoIA was investigating the incident.  The investigation into repeated vandalism of the Vazisubani Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi in previous years was also ongoing.

In January the Tbilisi City Court found one person guilty in criminal proceedings in connection with the 2016 attack on two female Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sharing Bible verses in Alexandre’s Garden in Tbilisi.  The Tbilisi Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and, as of December, the trial was pending before the Supreme Court.

Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.  In November the Council of Europe released the results of a study it commissioned, reporting 36 percent of Georgians believed diversity adversely affected the country and was detrimental to Georgian culture and local traditions.  Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance to their establishing places of worship and religious schools.  In October, for example, the Batumi City Court ruled authorities in the village of Kobuleti must provide sewage and water connections to a Muslim boarding school.  The mayor’s office had previously refused, stating it could not connect the school because of objections from neighbors that led to it remaining closed.  As of December the school remained closed and disconnected.  Representatives from the AAC in Batumi mentioned repeated instances of graffiti on their properties.

As of September MDF documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared to 92 such incidents from January to October 2017.  The instances included 90 statements which were termed Islamophobic, 35 of which were directed against Muslim migrants.  MDF listed 29 statements against Jehovah’s Witnesses; two each against the AAC, Baptists, and Protestants; one anti-Semitic statement; one against the GOC; and eight against other religious groups.

Ghana

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2010 government census (the most recent available), approximately 71 percent of the population is Christian, 18 percent Muslim, 5 percent adheres to indigenous or animistic religious beliefs, and 6 percent belongs to other religious groups or has no religious beliefs.  Smaller religious groups include the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Eckankar, and Rastafarianism.

Christian denominations include Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Eden Revival Church International, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventist, Pentecostal, Baptist, African independent churches, the Society of Friends (Quaker), and numerous nondenominational Christian groups.

Muslim communities include Sunnis, Ahmadiyya, Shia, and Sufis (Tijaniyah and Qadiriyya orders).

Many individuals who identify as Christian or Muslim also practice some aspects of indigenous beliefs.  There are syncretic groups that combine elements of Christianity or Islam with traditional beliefs.  Zetahil, a belief system unique to the country, combines elements of Christianity and Islam.

There is no significant link between ethnicity and religion, but geography is often associated with religious identity.  Christians reside throughout the country; the majority of Muslims reside in the northern regions and in the urban centers of Accra, Kumasi, and Sekondi-Takoradi; and most followers of traditional religious beliefs reside in rural areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for individuals’ freedom to profess and practice any religion.  These rights may be limited for stipulated reasons including defense, public safety, public health, or the management of essential services.

Religious groups must register with the Office of the Registrar General in the Ministry of Justice to receive formal government recognition and status as a legal entity, but there is no penalty for not registering.  The registration requirement for religious groups is the same as for nongovernmental organizations.  To register, groups must fill out a form and pay a fee. Most indigenous religious groups do not register.

According to law, registered religious groups are exempt from paying taxes on nonprofit religious, charitable, and educational activities.  Religious groups are required to pay progressive taxes, on a pay-as-earned basis, on for-profit business activities.

The Ministry of Education includes compulsory religious and moral education in the national public education curriculum.  There is no provision to opt out of these courses, which incorporate perspectives from Islam and Christianity.  There is also an Islamic education unit within the ministry responsible for coordinating all public education activities for Muslim communities.  The ministry permits private religious schools; however, they must follow the prescribed curriculum set by the ministry.  International schools, such as those that do not follow the government curriculum, are exempt from these requirements.

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

Government Practices

Muslim leaders continued to report that some publicly funded Christian mission schools required female Muslim students to remove their hijabs and Muslim students to participate in Christian worship services, despite a Ministry of Education policy prohibiting these practices.  For example, Muslim leaders reported three examples of schools that required Muslim students to participate in church services, saying they were compulsory school gatherings.  Similarly, there were continued reports that some publicly funded Muslim mission schools required female Christian students to wear the hijab.

Government officials leading meetings, receptions, and state funerals offered Christian and Muslim prayers and, occasionally, traditional invocations.  President Nana Akufo-Addo, a Christian, and Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia, a Muslim, continued to emphasize the importance of peaceful religious coexistence in public remarks.  For example, in June President Akufo-Addo spoke at an Eid al-Fitr celebration and declared, “Our country stands unique in West Africa, both in terms of inter- and intra-religious cooperation… We ought to guard this tradition of cooperation and tolerance jealously.”  He also cautioned his fellow citizens to be wary of “troublemakers and hate preachers” who might sow disunity.

In March the president unveiled design plans for an interdenominational Christian cathedral, to be built in Accra.  Several groups, including Christian ones, spoke against the proposal, citing reasons such as wasting public lands, the relocation of judges residing on the plot, and undue government involvement in the affairs of religious groups.  The Coalition of Muslim Organizations issued a statement saying it did not object to the construction of a cathedral but government should not play a role.  National Chief Imam spokesperson Sheikh Shaibu Aremeyaw said an interfaith edifice would have been more appropriate.  The president defended the plan as “a priority among priorities,” saying the country needed “a symbol that the Ghanaian nation can rally behind.”  The president’s liaison for the cathedral denied the government was playing favorites, citing the government’s donation of land for the construction of the national mosque, financed by international donors.  An opposition political party member filed a lawsuit in August to block construction of the cathedral on constitutional grounds.

During the year, the president emphasized the importance he placed on government representatives meeting with religious leaders on matters of mutual interest.  In August he convened a closed-door session with religious leaders to explore ways (such as establishing a regulatory body) to ensure all religious institutions pay statutory taxes required of them on their commercial activities.  The Ghana Revenue Authority planned to tax income churches receive from business activities, but not from offerings and donations.  The former head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference backed the plan, cautioning, however, against a “blanket” tax on churches.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim and Christian leaders reported continued regular dialogue between their respective governing bodies and the National Peace Council, an independent, statutory institution with religious reconciliation as part of its mandate.  The council did not convene any formal meetings with religious figures.  Faith leaders, however, reported sustained communication among themselves on religious matters and ways to address issues of concern or sensitivity.  While there were some reports of supervisors directing Muslim nursing students to remove their veils in the ward, such moves were not authorized or directed by faith leaders or government figures.

Guatemala

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.58 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2016 survey by ProDatos, approximately 45 percent of the population is Catholic and 42 percent Protestant.  Approximately 11 percent of the population professes no religious affiliation.  Groups together constituting less than 3 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and adherents of the Mayan, Xinca, and Afro-Indigenous Garifuna religions.

Christian groups include the Full Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Central American Church, Prince of Peace Church, independent evangelical Protestant groups, Baptists, the Church of Jesus Christ, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Russian Orthodox, and Seventh-day Adventists.

Catholics and Protestants are present throughout the country, with adherents among all major ethnic groups.  According to leaders of Mayan spiritual organizations, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergy, many indigenous Catholics and some indigenous Protestants practice some form of syncretism with indigenous spiritual rituals, mainly in the eastern city of Livingston and in the southern region of the country.

According to Jewish community leadership, approximately 1,000 Jews live in the country.  Muslim leaders stated there are approximately 1,200 Muslims of mostly Palestinian origin, who reside primarily in Guatemala City.  According to local Ahmadi Muslims, there is a small Ahmadi community of approximately 70 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the free expression of all beliefs and the right to practice a religion or belief, in public and private.  The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church.

The constitution does not require religious groups to register for the purpose of worship, but non-Catholic religious groups must register for legal status to conduct activities such as renting or purchasing property and entering into contracts, and to receive tax-exempt status and tax exemptions for properties used for worship, religious education, and social assistance.  To register, a group must file with the Ministry of Government a copy of its bylaws, which must reflect an intention to pursue religious objectives, and a list of its initial membership, with at least 25 members.  The ministry may reject applications if the group does not appear to be devoted to a religious objective, appears intent on undertaking illegal activities, or engages in activities that appear likely to threaten public order.  All religious groups must obtain the permission of the respective municipal authorities for construction and repair of properties and for holding public events, consistent with requirements for nonreligious endeavors.

The constitution protects the rights of indigenous groups to practice their traditions and forms of cultural expression, including religious rites.  The law permits Mayan spiritual groups to conduct religious ceremonies at Mayan historical sites on government-owned property.

The criminal code penalizes with one-month to one-year sentences the interruption of religious celebrations, the offense of a religion, and the desecration of burial sites or human remains; however, charges are seldom filed under these laws.  The constitution provides for freedom of expression, protecting against blasphemy.

According to the constitution, no member of the clergy of any religion may serve as president, vice president, government minister, or judge.

A Catholic priest and a nondenominational Christian pastor serve as prison chaplains.

The constitution permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools.  There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction.  In general, public schools have no religious component in the curriculum.  Private religious schools are allowed and can be found in all areas of the country.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain tourist visas, which authorities issue for renewable periods of three months.  After renewing their tourist visas once, foreign missionaries may apply for temporary residence for up to two years.

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

Government Practices

Some Mayan leaders said the government continued to limit their access to a number of religious sites on government-owned property and to require them to pay to access the sites.  The government continued to state there were no limitations to access; however, anyone seeking access to the sites located on national parks or other protected areas had to pay processing or entrance fees.  In Semuc Champey, a natural monument, for example, the processing fee was approximately $4 to $5, a prohibitive price for many indigenous populations.  Leaders from the Committee on the Designation of Sacred Sites continued to state practitioners of Mayan spirituality were generally able to obtain free access to sites if they were accredited and issued an identification card as spiritual guides and had received written permission from the Ministry of Culture in advance of the scheduled ceremony/religious practice.  Mayan leaders said the government continued to require written permission, involving considerable paperwork, costly travel to the capital, and fluency in Spanish.  The Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism (CODISRA) continued to provide interpreters for indigenous persons upon request.  Mayan advocates continued to press for access, within reasonable parameters, to the approximately 2,000 sacred sites on both public and private land.

In September the Mayan community of Chicoyoguito expressed concerns about lack of access to a spiritual site on former Guatemalan Military Base 21, which was transformed into a UN peacekeeping training base known as CREOMPAZ in Coban, Alta Verapaz.  The community stated it continued to petition for the return of land, including its sacred ceremonial center.  In 1968 military forces seized the land and evicted members of the Mayan community.

On November 5, with a search warrant from the Solicitor General’s Office (PGN), National Civilian Police officers and investigators, along with a PGN attorney, conducted a partial search of the compound of an ultraorthodox Jewish group, Lev Tahor, located in Santa Rosa.  Some government officials stated allegations of child abuse, including child marriage, surrounded the group.

Non-Catholic groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, said some municipal-level authorities still discriminated against them in processing permit approvals and in local tax collection.  Members of the Church of Jesus Christ said in spite of a 2013 ruling exempting the Church from paying taxes, municipal authorities continued to link the issue of tax collection to construction permits, refusing to issue new permits unless the Church paid its taxes.

Missionaries continued reporting they chose to remain on tourist visas to avoid what they considered a complicated procedure to apply for temporary residence.

On September 26, congress approved a resolution instructing migration authorities to ban a heavy metal rock band from performing a concert, stating the band was satanic and its lyrics were tantamount to an attack on Christian values.  The human rights ombudsman criticized the decision, noting the constitution protects freedom of religion and thought.  Some local media sources stated the decision amounted to religious censorship.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection work.  Some private owners of land in locations considered sacred by Mayan religious groups denied access to Mayans, including caves, lagoons, mountains, and forests, according to Mayan spiritual groups.

Members of the Catholic Episcopal Conference said they were offended by a March 8 protest for women’s rights they believed mocked Christian religious traditions and imagery.  Other religious leaders said they were not offended because the march was in honor of human rights and equality.

Christian communities, including the Church of Jesus Christ, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities, reported increased interfaith collaboration during the year, including providing humanitarian assistance following the June 3 Fuego volcanic eruption; creating an Interreligious Humanitarian Commission, which during the year provided eye examinations and glasses to more than 9,000 persons; and combating high rates of malnutrition among the country’s youth.  These groups provided health and humanitarian assistance to individuals irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Honduras

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  The Roman Catholic Church estimates 63-65 percent of the population is Catholic.  According to a 2016 survey by a local marketing research and public opinion company, 48 percent of respondents self-identified as evangelical Protestants, 41 percent as Roman Catholics, 3 percent as other, and 8 percent as unaffiliated.

In the 2015 Latinobarometro regional public opinion survey, 43.6 percent of respondents identified as Catholic, 42.1 percent as evangelical Protestant, 1.8 percent as other, and 12.4 percent as unaffiliated.  Other religious groups, with their stated number of adherents, include Seventh-day Adventists (146,000), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (23,100).  Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Episcopalians, Lutherans, Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, Evangelical Moravian Church, and several Anabaptist and Mennonite groups.  Evangelical Protestant churches include the Church of God, Assemblies of God, Abundant Life Church, Living Love Church, International Christian Center, and various Great Commission churches.  A number of evangelical Protestant churches have no denominational affiliation.  The Moravian Church has a broad presence in the La Mosquitia Region in the eastern part of the country.  Some indigenous groups and Afro-Hondurans practice African and Amerindian faiths or incorporate elements of Christianity, African, and Amerindian religions into syncretistic religious practices and beliefs.

According to a representative of the Muslim community, the community has more than 3,100 members, of whom 90 percent are converts.  The Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic community counts nearly 1,800 members.  The Jewish community states it has approximately 250 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions as long as that exercise does not contravene other laws or public order.  An article of the constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding public office or making political statements.  The law distinguishes among legally recognized religious organizations, religious organizations registered as NGOs, and nonregistered religious organizations.  The government does not require religious groups to register.  By law, only the legislature has the authority to confer status as a legally recognized group; only the Roman Catholic Church has received such recognition.  Those recognized by law receive benefits such as tax-exempt status for staff salaries and church materials.

Religious organizations not individually recognized by law may register as NGOs.  The government does not significantly distinguish between religious and nonreligious NGOs.  To register as an NGO, organizations must have a board of directors and juridical personality (standing as a legal entity).  Associations seeking juridical personality must submit an application to the Secretariat of Government, Justice, and Decentralization describing their internal organization, bylaws, and goals.  The Office of the Solicitor General reviews applications for juridical personality and renders a constitutional opinion.  Approved organizations must submit annual financial and activity reports to the government to remain registered.  They may apply to the Ministry of Finance to receive benefits such as tax exemptions and customs duty waivers.  Unregistered religious organizations are unable to obtain tax-exempt status or other benefits.

The constitution states public education is secular and allows for the establishment of private schools, including schools run by religious organizations.  Public schools do not teach religion; however, private schools may include religion as part of the curriculum.  Various religious organizations run schools, including the Roman Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist, and evangelical Protestant churches.  Parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children receive, including religious education.  The government dictates a minimum standardized curriculum for all schools.  Some private religiously affiliated schools require participation in religious events to graduate.

The government is a party to the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights, which recognizes the right to conscientious objection to obligatory military service.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain entry and residence permits, and mandates a local institution or individual to sponsor a missionary’s application for residency and submit it to immigration authorities.  The government has agreements with the CEH, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, to facilitate entry and residence permits for their missionaries.  Groups with which the government does not have written agreements are required to provide proof of employment and income for their missionaries.

Foreign religious workers may request residency for up to five years.  To renew their residence permits, religious workers must submit proof of continued employment with the sponsoring religious group at least 30 days before their residency expires.  The law prohibits the immigration of foreign missionaries who practice religions that use witchcraft or satanic rituals, and it allows the deportation of foreigners who practice witchcraft or “religious fraud.”  According to the immigration law, individuals who “fraudulently exercise their [religious] profession or office, or commit fraud against the health or religious beliefs of citizens of the country, or the national patrimony,” may be fined or face other legal consequences.

The criminal code protects clergy authorized to operate in the country from being required to testify by the court or the Attorney General’s Office about privileged information obtained in confidence during a religious confession.  The law does not require vicars, bishops, and archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church and comparably ranked individuals from other legally recognized religious groups to appear in court if subpoenaed.  They are required, however, to make a statement at a location of their choosing.

The official regulations for the penal system state that penitentiaries guarantee the free exercise of religion without preference for one specific religion, as long as that worship is not against the law or public order.

Religious officials face fines of 50,000-100,000 lempiras ($2,000-$4,000) and legal bans on performing religious duties for four to six years if they perform a marriage without a civil marriage license.

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

Government Practices

On November 21, National Congress President Oliva introduced legislation to amend the article of the constitution that prohibits religious leaders from running for elected office.  Religious groups and politicians stated mixed reactions to the proposed reform; one congressional representative said the country was a secular state and should not commingle religion with politics, while several evangelical Protestant pastors supported the reform.  Discussion of the law continued through the end of the year.

On May 10, National Party Congressman Tomas Zambrano presented a motion before congress to permit the reading of the Bible in primary and secondary schools.  Representatives from several religious groups, including the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum, Muslim, Church of Jesus Christ, and Seventh-day Adventist communities, expressed concern about the motion, noting the motion would violate constitutional precepts guaranteeing secular education.  Protests outside the congressional building and in schools against the motion occurred in May.  On May 16, the Association of Freedom of Thought filed a constitutional challenge against the motion; however, the court ruled on June 18 it would not admit the challenge because the motion had not advanced through congress by that time.  Congress had not considered the motion as of year’s end.

Some religious organizations, including the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum, an interfaith NGO representing more than 90 religious and civil society groups, again criticized what they said was government preference for the Catholic Church and for religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH.  The forum, which included neither Catholic nor evangelical Protestant churches affiliated with the CEH, criticized the legal recognition of non-Catholic religious groups as NGOs or as unregistered religious organizations – which they said accorded them fewer rights and privileges than to the Catholic Church.  The groups also continued to object to the existing application of one uniform set of registration rules for all nonprofit organizations, including all non-Catholic religious groups.  Non-Catholic groups again said the government should recognize them as religious groups rather than NGOs.  The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum again stated the government routinely invited Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders, but not representatives of other religious groups, to lead prayers at government events and to participate in official functions, committees, and other joint government-civil society activities.  Additionally, non-Catholic religious groups continued to criticize the government for not recognizing them as churches and for their inability to receive benefits, including tax exemptions for clergy salaries and imported religious materials.  The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum said the current legal and policy framework discriminated against all non-Catholic religious groups, and they highlighted that the government provided exclusive benefits to the CEH, including continual tax exemptions and waivers on imports.

The official NGO registry office – the Unit to Register and Monitor Civil Society Organizations (Unidad de Registro y Seguimento de Asociaciones Civiles, or URSAC) – in the Ministry of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization received 186 applications during the year from religious associations (235 in 2017).  During the year, the URSAC registered 133 religious associations in its registration system, while the remaining applications were pending, awaiting additional information.  The URSAC noted that it did not deny any registration requests by religious associations during the year.

Religious leaders continued to report some teachers in public schools pressured students to participate in the religious rituals of the teachers’ faith.  According to the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum, a teacher and community leader led prayers in a specific way in a public school in Tegucigalpa.  When one student objected, noting he prayed in a different way, the community leader insisted that the student pray in the manner in which the teacher conducted prayers – standing up, instead of kneeling down.

Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to express concerns regarding religious freedom at both private and public schools, from the elementary through the university level.  Seventh-day Adventist representatives said their students faced continued problems obtaining permission to be absent from class or excused from taking exams on Saturdays for religious reasons from the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the National Teachers University.  Religious leaders also cited violations in public schools in the cities of Santa Rita, Yoro Department; San Pedro Sula, Cortes Department; Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Department; Santa Rosa de Copan, Copan Department; and Lepaera, Lempira Department.  Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church noted the Supreme Court still had not addressed a constitutional challenge that Adventist students filed in 2015 seeking recognition of their right to religious freedom.  Specifically, the students were seeking alternatives to taking classes or exams on Saturdays.

A rule drafted in 2010 requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses to sing the national anthem, salute the national flag, and participate in other patriotic events still remained in the Secretariat of Education’s school guidelines, despite a 2014 ruling by the secretariat’s legal director that the rule was not enforceable.  Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to state their concern about public school officials pressuring Jehovah’s Witnesses to participate in public celebrations and other school events running counter to their beliefs, including singing the national anthem at graduation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The CEH reported that most violence against its members originated from criminal organizations, noting that many of its member churches were present in areas of high violence with minimal state presence.  Media reported two unknown assailants beat an evangelical pastor to death in Santa Barbara Department in June.  The CEH cited two near-fatal attacks during the year, including one case in which gang members shot a church leader on her doorstep in Tegucigalpa as a warning to her church to pay extortion money.  In July an unknown individual shot a pastor in his church in Ocotepeque Department.  It was unclear if these killings were tied to gang activity; police investigations continued at year’s end.  CEH reported instances where gangs gave entire families 24 hours’ notice to vacate their homes.  The CEH also reported widespread extortion of Protestant church leaders and congregation members.  While stating that unlike in past years it had not recorded killings of pastors or church leaders, the CEH flagged an increase in threats against pastors and church leaders located in areas known for gang or narcotics trafficking activities.  Despite the attacks, the CEH praised government efforts to dismantle gangs, noting an overall decline in the level of violence and the incarceration of many gang leaders.  The Catholic Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa commented that its priests and laypersons operated effectively throughout the country and did not record any killings of church officials.

Jesuit priest Ismael “Padre Melo” Moreno Coto continued to report publicly that he had received threats on multiple occasions.  He said the threats were due to his management of Radio Progress, a Jesuit radio station and NGO, and because he opposed President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Some Muslim women continued to report some banks asked them to remove their hijabs when passing through bank security.  They said they were usually able to resolve the issue after explaining the attire was part of their religious practice.  Some Muslims said private sector offices continued to prohibit women from wearing the hijab.  Representatives of the Islamic community said they received a few derogatory messages on social media but emphasized they received far more positive and supportive comments than negative messages.  Seventh-day Adventists reported the continued refusal of certain private institutions, including places of employment and schools, to permit them to observe Saturday as a day of rest.

The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum continued its efforts to counter intolerance, discrimination, and the imposition of one religion over others.  The organization held three international congresses and more than 20 workshops during the year.  It also reported that it engaged regularly with traditional media and over social media.  Religious groups reported working together to develop better relations and cooperate on projects, including their joint collaboration against the congressional motion to read the Bible in public schools.

Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church religious leaders reported widespread mischaracterization of their religion, noting that societal groups often referred to the church as the “the Church of the Turks” due to the Orthodox Church’s historic roots in Turkey.

Iraq

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population, while Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population.  Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkomans 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 16 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 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders report most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced.  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 between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad.  Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.  The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa.  Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians.  According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.  The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 70 to 80 Jewish families reside in the IKR, though he noted that some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution.  According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are fewer than six adult members of the local Jewish community.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of December, nearly 1.8 million persons remained displaced within the country.  Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home.  According to the IOM, as of May, approximately 67 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) population were Arab Sunni, 13 percent Kurdish Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 6 percent Turkoman Shia, 2 percent Arab Shia, 1 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christian, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkoman 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 “foundational source” of legislation.  It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it 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 provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists.  According to the penal code, Jews may not hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i 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 a product of rape.  Civil status law allows non-Muslim women to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

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 Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish.  Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and 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 government, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.

There are three diwans (offices) 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 Office of the Prime Minister 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 prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith.  For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’i – including Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i faith – the law does not specify penalties; 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 MERA.  To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam.  Eight faiths are registered with the KRG MERA:  Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered 11 evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches:  Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.  The KRG allows new Christian churches to register with a minimum of 50 adherents.

In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by Christian church leaders, which includes 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 Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other six registered religions.

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 a fine of 300 dinars (26 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.  Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel:  3.5 million dinars ($3,100) for Hajj travel by land, and five million dinars ($4,400) 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 Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.”  In the IKR, there are 56 Syriac and 21 Turkoman language schools.  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 provides 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.

New national identity cards do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information.  The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim.  There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations.  Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian.  Without an official identity card, one may not register one’s marriage, enroll 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 the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.

The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, and promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups.  It 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.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 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.  Usually one of the COR rapporteur positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other a Turkoman.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities:  five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, 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 antiterrorism law of November 2005 defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.”  Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Observers reported the current antiterrorism law did not allow for the right to due process and a fair trial.  Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links but provided no corroborating evidence.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia.  Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in late 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, displacement, and in some cases, violence from PMF and Iraqi security forces.  Media outlets carried numerous reports of Shia PMF groups invading, looting, and burning the houses of Kurds, Sunni Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk Governorate.  Kurds faced similar violence in Khanaqin, a majority Kurdish city in Diyala Governorate that also passed from KRG to central government control in 2017.  Analysts stated that discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year.  In August four Kurds, including a Peshmerga, were beheaded in Khanaqin by unknown attackers.  The Kaka’i community in Daquq, Kirkuk Governorate, continued to suffer harassment and intimidation, which Kaka’i civil society groups said accelerated under PMF occupation of the area.

The religious status of children resulting from rape became a more prominent issue because of the number of minority children resulting from gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIS.  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 to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services.  Yezidi sources reported the number of these children range from several dozen to several hundred.  They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers.  According to Christian leaders, 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.  Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s 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 Hunain Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District.  The chair of the municipal council of Bartalla made public court documents from several cases involving militiamen charged with theft, harassment, and sexual harassment.  Shabak Sunni leaders in Hamdaniya made similar allegations.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, Shabak parliamentarians, including Qado, with the support of some other Shia elements within the central government in Baghdad, had directed the 30th Brigade to harass Christians to drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population and allow Shabak and other Shia Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers.  Christians in Tal Kayf made similar claims that the nominally Christian but majority Sunni Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively sought to prevent and disrupt the return of the displaced Christian community to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town.

The Ninewa provincial government ordered that all district governments comply with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF martyrs of the war against ISIS as compensation for their loss.  The order included those districts with Sunni and non-Muslim majorities.  In September Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam issued an order suspending such grants in the historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change.  Throughout the year, Behnam successfully resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya.  Iraq’s National Investment Commission, under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, approved the building of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla.  Pointing to a surplus of houses in Christian town centers, Christian community leaders alleged that virtually all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated by politics rather than religious discrimination.  According to various NGOs, central government, and KRG sources, KRG security forces and ISF blocked major roads between the IKR and central government-controlled Iraq, including roads serving minority communities such as the roads between Dohuk and Sinjar, al Qosh and Tal Kayf, and Sheikhan and Mosul.  The closure of these roads forced minorities to take long, circuitous detours, restricted their access to markets for their goods, and left them vulnerable to harassment and extortion at numerous checkpoints.  After lengthy negotiations, the KRG and GOI opened most of these roads during the year, including the al Qosh-Tal Kayf and Shaykhan-Mosul roads in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December.

In June elements of the PMF Imam Ali Brigade refused to allow the Yezidi Sinjar District Council to return to Sinjar City from its temporary location in Mosul, even with an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister.  In October a combination of PMF and popular protest again prevented the Yezidi mayor of Sinjar and the district council from returning to Sinjar.  Christians reported continued harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the Shabak Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf.

According to multiple sources, some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers or family members of suspected members from their homes in several governorates.  For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kataib 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.

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 MERA director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014 3,322 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS had been rescued or released, but 3,015 Yezidis were still missing as of October.  Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times and subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.  The Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission reported in August that 600 Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, none of whom had been reported rescued by the end of the year.  A Turkoman NGO, however, stated in December that more than 1300 Turkomans were still missing and said it had evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkoman women to Chechnya, Turkey, and Syria.  The KRG MERA also reported that 250 Christians were rescued, leaving an estimated 150 missing.

In October the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi Affairs reported the KRG had paid more than $7 million in ransom and payments to middlemen to secure the release of approximately 2,000 Yezidis from ISIS since 2014.  In July the Ninewa Provincial Council established two offices, one in Mosul and the other in Sinjar, responsible for investigating the fate of Yezidis still missing or held captive by ISIS.  Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs.

According to Yazda, a global Yezidi organization, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.  In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish 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, including evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties in changing their registration from Muslim to Christian if they were converts, or engaged in in 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.  In July ISF forces and local police forcibly entered Mar Gorgees Syriac Catholic Church in Bartalla, cut the internet network of the church and adjacent cultural center, and destroyed the church’s internet server equipment.  While authorities accused the church of unauthorized distribution of an IKR-based internet service to the Christian community in Ninewa Province, Syriac Catholic Church leaders said the action represented an attack on the church, and they accused the security forces of acting on behalf of a rival, politically connected internet provider.

The KRG MERA reduced the number of mosques delivering weekly Friday sermons from 3,000 to 2,000 by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods.  MERA Spokesman and Director of General Relations Mariwan Naqshbandy said MERA was formulating a policy to produce and distribute pre-approved content for Friday sermons in MERA-funded mosques to prevent the spread of extremism.  The KRG MERA banned eight imams from delivering Friday sermons, citing extremist ideology and incitement to violence.  The imams continued to receive MERA salaries and were ordered to undergo a rehabilitation course to regain permission to preach in MERA-approved mosques.  MERA also banned 10 books by well-known Islamic scholars because they encouraged violence and extremism.  MERA also introduced a mandatory training program for new imams that included instruction on religious pluralism and tolerance and against extremist preaching and hate speech.

According to the international human rights NGO Heartland Alliance, KRG law protecting the rights of religious freedom was undermined by vague wording and did not provide implementation mechanisms or penalties for violations.

In September Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf said the central government had not opened an investigation into the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by the archbishop in 2017.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.  Estimates, including those cited by several Christian parliamentarians (MPs), the daily number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22.  A director of an Assyrian NGO reported that four Syriac language schools closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.  Some Yezidis and Christians maintained their own 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.  Other minority leaders in the Ninewa Plain expressed hope that the Ministry of Interior would hire minorities to serve in local police forces to absorb and replace the minority militias in the region.  Some leaders conducted recruitment drives to demonstrate the considerable interest among minority communities in joining police units, including among current members of minority militias; however, no local police positions were available at year’s end.

One of the remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad described the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric from both Muslim and Christian leaders.  Although the sermons did not advocate for violence against the Jewish community, the community member expressed concern that more priests were including anti-Semitic rhetoric in their sermons, comparable to the anti-Semitic rhetoric often heard from some Muslims.  He presented pictures of the continued desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the Shia-majority Sadr City section of Baghdad.  The small community did not file any reports on the desecration with local authorities due to reported fear of retribution.  Despite Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to speak out in favor of the return of Jews in a June 2 response to a follower’s question, the member of the Jewish community said Jews continued to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.

A group of IKR- and Ninewa Plain-based religious leaders from established apostolic Christian churches sent a letter to the IKR MERA director general of Christian affairs stating MERA made it too easy for new Christian groups to become established in the IKR.  The letter accused the newcomers of damaging the churches’ relationship with the Muslim community by proselytizing, and demanded MERA provide the names of adherents submitted by the new churches.  MERA refused to change the requirement for new churches to register but complied with the apostolic churches’ request to compile a list of adherents of evangelical and other Protestant churches.  Apostolic church leaders said the list would allow them to remove from their rolls the names of former members now attending other churches so the apostolic churches would not be blamed for any proselytizing performed by former members now belonging to evangelical or other Protestant churches.

NGOs continued to state constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate them and no legislation proposed to repeal them.  According to a December article on the website Al Monitor, Deputy Justice Minister Hussein al-Zuhairi stated during a dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Baha’i Faith was not a religion, emphasizing the government’s commitment to legislation prohibiting the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays.  Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation.  Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities.

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.  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 1.5 million dinars ($660 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.  The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

The government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, but some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates.  Reports continued 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 Muslim students.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students.  The ministry also 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.  The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education partnered with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes.  The curriculum was still under development at year’s end.

The central government extended by one year the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010.  They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in northern Iraq.  For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.  The director general of Christian affairs in the KRG MERA said that of 59 long-pending property dispute cases between Christians and Kurds, the KRG courts had only ruled on five cases, although in four of the five they ruled in favor of Christian plaintiffs.  In one such case in the Nahla Valley area of Dohuk , a court sentenced Kurds convicted of taking Christian-owned land to a three-month suspended sentence, a token fine, and a requirement the Kurds make a written pledge they would not encroach on the land again.  The KRG MERA director general, however, said authorities made no attempt to follow up on the case, and some of the Kurds continued to occupy land the court ruled belonged to the Christian community.  A land dispute dating from 2003 when the KRG seized 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of farmland near Ankawa owned by 220 Christian farmers for the construction of the Erbil International Airport remained unresolved.

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 spent approximately 2.5 billion dinars ($2.2 million) on the construction of an Armenian Apostolic church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, and another 500 million dinars ($439,000) on a community center for the Assyrian Church of the East.  The KRG said in 2017 that it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil, a Baha’i religious and cultural center near Erbil, and a Zoroastrian temple in Sulaimaniya.  According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry passed its recommendation for lands to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels, but by year’s end, no land had been allocated for any of the three projects.  The Zoroastrian representative in MERA said Ministry of Municipalities officials had refused to implement the government directives for religious reasons.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM, a situation unchanged from the previous year.  Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority 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 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.  Although there are no reliable statistics, minorities stated they believed they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime.  Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime.  Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.  Some Sunnis 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 Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP has 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law does not restrict who may vote in quota seat races.  Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority voters said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the nine minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government.  Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against Yezidis by closing the Dohuk-Sinjar road and continuing to restrict commercial traffic after opening the road to passenger traffic in December.  Yezidi activists reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care, primarily due to the road closure.  Since the October 2017 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, although not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.  KRG security forces, ISF, and the PMF had closed the road between the neighboring Christian towns of Telskuf and Batnaya, slowing the return of IDPs.  A local priest in Telskuf said KRG security forces refused requests from humanitarian organizations to pass through their roadblock to conduct relief and reconstruction work in Batnaya.  Authorities reopened the Telskuf-Batnaya road in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December, but both roads remained closed to commercial traffic at year’s end.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Shabak Brigade.  Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits.  The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol.  Community sources reported Muslim businessmen sometimes used Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

On March 21, the tomb of a Kaka’i religious leader was destroyed by an explosion in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.  A local Kaka’i NGO said members of the PMF were responsible.

Kaka’i leaders said the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk and converted them into mosques.

In observance of World Religion Day on January 21, the then speaker of parliament hosted 350 government officials, ethnic and religious leaders, and the international community in a celebration to urge interfaith dialogue and promote religious pluralism.  Although representatives from several religious minorities welcomed the event, they said it was unlikely discrimination against their communities would end anytime soon.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On July 23, three gunmen who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they then killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion before police killed the attackers.

In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime.  Others said the killers wanted to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.

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 threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.  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.

During May court proceedings, a judge demanded the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR MERA swear on the Quran before testifying.  She refused and asked to swear on a copy of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathustra, but the judge did not allow it.

In June media continued to report political parties, criminal networks, and some militia groups seized more than 30,000 Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit with impunity, despite pledges by the prime minister’s office to open investigations into the seizures.

In December, in response to the central government’s announcement that Christmas would be an official Iraqi holiday, prominent Sunni cleric and self-proclaimed “Grand Mufti” of Iraq Abdul-Mehdi al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that Muslims should not take part in New Year celebrations or congratulate Christians during Christmas.  Both the central government and the KRG Sunni Endowments rejected his fatwa and posted criticisms of it online.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as 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, such as Ashura.  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.  Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.  According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts helped to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

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 decision to emigrate.  Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

In November the Catholic Patriarchs of the East held a four-day conference in Baghdad to bring attention to the challenges threatening the survival of Christian communities in the region.  Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Sako, who hosted the meeting, said the patriarchs wanted to encourage “families to stay in our homeland keeping up our faith, identity, ethics, traditions, and language.”  This was the first time the conference was held in the country.  Catholic rites representatives included Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara al-Rahi, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Monsignor William Hanna Shomali, and Cardinal Sako, who delivered the opening speech.

Jamaica

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent census in 2011, 26 percent of the population belongs to various branches of the Church of God; 12 percent is Seventh-day Adventist; 11 percent Pentecostal; 7 percent Baptist; 3 percent Anglican; 2 percent Roman Catholic; 2 percent United Church of Christ; 2 percent Methodist; 2 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses; 1 percent Moravian; and 1 percent Brethren.  Two percent maintain some other form of spiritual practice.  Other religious groups constitute 8 percent of the population, including approximately 29,000 Rastafarians, 5,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1,500 Muslims (Muslim groups estimate their numbers at 6,500), 1,800 Hindus, 500 Jews, and 270 Baha’is.  The census reports 21 percent have no religious affiliation.  There is no census data on adherents of Obeah and Myalism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief either alone or in community with others, both in public and in private, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship.  It prohibits discrimination based on belief.  The constitution provides that rights and freedoms are protected to the extent they do not “prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.”

A law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism, religious practices with West African influences, remains in effect.  Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months.  Authorities have rarely enforced the law since the country became independent in 1962.

Registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, but registered groups obtain incorporated group status and gain benefits, including the ability to hold land, to enter into legal disputes as an organization, and for clergy to visit members in prison.  Groups may seek incorporated status by applying to the Companies Office, an executive agency.  The Companies Office application comprises a standard form and a fee of 2,500 Jamaican dollars ($20).  NGOs register via the same form and fee structure to gain incorporated status.  Groups incorporated through this process must subsequently submit annual reports and financial statements to the Companies Office.

Alternatively groups may petition the parliament to be incorporated by parliamentary act.  Such groups receive similar benefits to those incorporating through the Companies Office, but parliament does not require annual reports or regulate the organizations it incorporates.

Regardless of incorporation status, religious groups seeking tax-exempt transactions must register as charities.  To be considered a charity, an organization must apply to the Cooperatives and Friendly Societies Department in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries.  Once registered, groups must submit their registration to the customs agency in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service or apply to the tax administration to be considered for tax-free status.

The constitution states religious groups have the right to provide religious instruction to members of their communities.  Immunizations are mandatory for all children attending both public and private schools.  The law requires school administrators to adhere to several practices regarding the teaching of religion.  No individual may be required to receive religious instruction or participate in religious observances contrary to his or her beliefs.  The public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu houses of worship.  Students may not opt out of religious education; however, religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional.

Churches operate a number of private schools.  Churches also run some public schools; they receive funding from the government and must abide by Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information rules.  Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths.  Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions; they do not receive special treatment from the government based on their religious or denominational affiliation.  Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches; the Islamic Council of Jamaica runs two schools.

Foreign religious workers traveling to the country to perform religious work, as is the case with all foreign visitors, require an entry visa.  The entry visa may be obtained upon arrival or in advance, depending on the nationality of the traveler and the length of stay.  Religious workers, regardless of affiliation, who visit the country to work with a religious organization, require a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

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

Government Practices

On August 28, the Supreme Court ordered that a five-year-old-child with dreadlocks be allowed to attend school until the court could hear the full constitutional challenge.  The girl was accepted to Kensington Primary, a public school in a suburb of Kingston, but administrators told her parents that she would have to cut her dreadlocks or find another school.  The case garnered much attention from various advocacy groups, all of which supported the girl.  Religious leaders said the case symbolically represented Rastafarianism because wearing dreadlocks was Rastafarian custom, and prohibiting dreadlocks was violating Rastafarians’ right to practice their religion.  Although the girl did not self-identify as Rastafarian, media outlets noted the case for its wider context of cultural identity and religious expression.  Legal practitioners stated that the court’s decision on this matter could have ramifications for Rastafarians seeking employment or government services as well.

Rastafarians continued to state their religious opposition to immunization, a requirement for children to register and attend school and part of the government’s stated campaign to reduce the resurgence of many communicable diseases in the country.  According to Rastafarian sources, however, most Rastafarian students could obtain a doctor’s note excusing them from the required immunizations.  Rastafarians also stated discrimination against Rastafarian children at schools was very rare and generally occurred only in rural areas.

The government undertook an analysis of potential discrimination in faith-affiliated private schools, attended by approximately 10 percent of students at the secondary and primary levels.  The overwhelming majority of these schools are Christian-based, and 35 percent received some form of public funding through direct subsidies, stipends for food, or discounted textbooks.

A member of the Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship said conflicts of interest arose when public policy and religious preferences did not align.  In one report a Christian-affiliated secondary school asked a student to withdraw after becoming pregnant.  The council member said civil society and senior educational officials then intervened on the stated grounds that the act was illegal.  The student was subsequently reinstated.

From October 8 through October 15, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission held its annual National Heritage Week, coordinating with the Committee for the Promotion of National Religious Services on a national interfaith thanksgiving service.  Similar events occurred throughout the country at the parish (sub-county) level during the year.

The government routinely conducted outreach to religious minorities, including Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians, as well as Baha’i, Buddhist, and Hindu groups, with the stated goal of fostering tolerance and acceptance.  Outreach included participating in the annual National Heritage Week to celebrate the country’s religious tolerance and diversity.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Rastafarians continued to report wider societal acceptance.  Many religious leaders stated that this was due to a different public perception of Rastafari; they said the country’s youth and middle-aged populations believed the Rastafarian religion had become more closely associated with the country’s development.  Religious leaders said there was more societal respect and appreciation for what they said was the historic role Rastafarians played in support of equal rights, removing discrimination from public spheres, anti-colonialism, and holistic living.  They also stated that while entrenched prejudices regarding Rastafarians’ preferred manner of dress and appearance continued to dissuade some employers from hiring them, Rastafarians continued to achieve higher positions in both the private and public sectors.  For example, at the Mona School of Business & Management in Kingston, Rastafarian and senior lecturer K’adamawe A.H. K’nife had supervised all curriculum development for the subject of entrepreneurship since 2010.  On October 15, National Heroes Day, the government honored Rastafarian author, producer, and filmmaker Barbara Blake-Hannah with the Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer.  Rastafarians also led an increasing number of NGOs focused on environmental sustainability, civil society groups, and state agencies.

In April the PSOJ announced it would take action against those member companies that denied employment to Seventh-day Adventists on the basis of their observance of a Saturday Sabbath.  In announcing the policy, the PSOJ president said that the constitution did not permit discrimination based on religion, religious practices, or a day of rest.

Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups continued to state that society was tolerant of religious diversity, pointing to their continued involvement, along with other faiths, in the Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship.  The interfaith council included representatives from the Rastafari Innity Council Sanatan Dharma Mandir United Church, Unification Church, and National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, United Congregation of Israelites, Islamic Council, and Soka Gakkai International.  Other organizations sometimes participated in council events.  The council continued to coordinate public educational events, including annual interfaith awareness days.  The Islamic Council of Jamaica said large groups of secondary school students continued to regularly visit the council’s 13 mosques as part of the government’s religious education syllabus.

Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for extensive coverage and open dialogue on religious matters through radio and television shows, as well as on opinion pages and letters to the editor in newspapers such as The Gleaner and The Jamaica Observer.  Discussion focused on the intersection of gay rights with Christianity, and religions’ role in the government.

In January the government refused the entry of a U.S. clergyman who had engaged in Holocaust denial and who had called for the killing of gay individuals and the removal of women from the workplace.  The denial came after a bishop from the Jamaica Evangelical Alliance stated that church groups had disavowed the clergyman and a petition with 36,500 signatures protesting the visit was sent to the Office the Prime Minister.  The official reason cited by the government for denying the visa was the clergyman’s statement that he did not intend to register and obtain a permit before beginning his public evangelizing.

Jordan

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population and Christians 2.2 percent.  Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered Muslim by the government).  These estimates do not include migrant workers or refugees.  According to the Ministry of Labor (MOL), there are approximately 670,000 migrant workers in the country, mostly from Egypt, South and East Asia, and Africa.  Migrant workers from Africa and South and East Asia are often Hindu or Christian.  There are more than 757,000 refugees in the country registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including approximately 670,000 Syrians and 67,000 Iraqis.  The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim.  Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion.  It states the king must be a Muslim.  The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and courts for non-Muslim for religious communities recognized by the government.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy.  Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the presence of a will that states otherwise.  Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution.  The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Churches before converting a Christian to Islam, to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction.  The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying Jordanians in a manner that violates their dignity, according to government statements.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.”  Although these prosecutions may occur in the State Security Court, cases are usually tried in other courts.  Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register.  Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration.  If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage (there is no provision for civil marriage).  They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts.  Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but may own property and open bank accounts.  They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding.  Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Nonrecognized religious groups lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff.  Individuals may exercise such activities and as such may designate an individual to perform these functions on behalf of the unrecognized group, however.  To register as a recognized religious group, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine.  In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the minister of the interior and the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations.  The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups:  the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

The law lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups:  Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.  In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the Ministry of Interior as well, but have not been permitted to establish a court:  the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptists.  The government has continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The government granted legal status to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance).  In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries.  Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task.  Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments).  Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs manages mosques, including appointing imams, paying mosque staff salaries, managing Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizing certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances.  Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, which is headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and is in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.

Since 2017, the government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons.  According to the law, Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from Ministry of Awqaf employment.  In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month, or be given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless officially authorized by an official committee headed by the grand mufti in the General Ifta’ Department.  This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf with the rank of mufti being equal to that of a minister.

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200).

By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out.  Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction.  The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but legally including religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) with the right to establish their own schools provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.”  In order to operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards.  The Ministry of Education does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship.  In several cities, recognized Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity.  The schools are open to adherents of all religions.

Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools, but it is optional for non-Muslims.  Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in his or her final year of high school, which includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran.  Islamic religion is an optional subject for university entrance exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum or for Muslim students following international curricula.

The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other recognized religious communities.  According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts.  Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court.  Per the constitution, matters of personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities.  Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities.  According to the law, members of recognized denominations lacking their own courts must take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court.  There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups.  Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.

The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Muslim religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal.  The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Muslim religious (known as ecclesiastical) courts.  All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.

According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf.  Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.

Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status.  Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.

According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal.  If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert for their marriage to remain legal.  There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups.  Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father.  Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife loses custody of the children when they reach seven years of age.  In December an amendment to the Personal Status Law was passed, stipulating that mothers should retain custody of their children until age 18.  The new amendment contains no mention of religious affiliation.  Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion.  In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise.  All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.

National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records.  Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion.  Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their families as their own.  Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on the electronic records.  Converts from Christianity to Islam may change their religion on their civil documents such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family), and on electronic records.

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine out of 130 parliamentary seats or 6.9 percent.  Christians may not run for additional seats.  No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups.  The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Attorney General ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  Authorities charged the men with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife per the article of the penal code stipulating hate speech, as well as with violations of the cybercrimes law and the press and publications law.  The cartoon, posted on December 8, depicted Turkish chef “Salt Bae” – real name Nusret Gokce – sprinkling salt on the food at the Last Supper of Jesus.  Social media users commented to the website that the drawing was religiously insensitive and would cause strife between Muslims and Christians in the country.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released Al-Wakeel and the editor, Ghadeer Rbeihat, two days later.

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials.  Because of the ban on conversion under sharia, government officials generally refused to change religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion.  Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  During the year, several adult Christians reported discovering that because of a parent’s subsequent conversion to Islam, the individuals had been automatically re-registered as Muslims in some government files, leading to inconsistencies in their records and causing bureaucratic obstacles and administrative holdups when trying to apply for marriage licenses or register for university.

Members of religious groups who were unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the Ministry of Justice.  The chief of the OSJ reportedly continued to try to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce.  The OSJ reportedly continued to enforce the interview requirement, introduced in 2017, for converts to Islam to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

According to journalists who cover religious topics, the government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require that preachers refrain from political commentary, which the government deemed could instigate social or political unrest, and to counter radicalization.  Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons.  Imams who violated these rules continued to risk being fined or banned from preaching.  According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year.  In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam.  In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight.  There continued to be unofficial mosques operating outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, as well as imams outside of government employment who preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision.

In March the government began enforcing a new residency policy enacted in October 2017 to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency, suggesting that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims.  Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the Ministry of Interior and a letter of sponsorship from the church.  Volunteers must now obtain additional approvals, including the MOL, lengthening the average renewal process by several months.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to practice their religion and included them in interfaith events.  Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue to Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security.  The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim.  In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in the family and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school.  The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees which sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.

Other nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals, and also to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

According to observers, recognized Christian denominations with the rights and privileges associated with membership in the CCL guarded this status, and continued to foster a degree of competition among other religious groups hoping to attain membership.  Despite efforts to alter their status, some evangelical Christian groups remained unrecognized either as denominations or as associations.  Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches continued to say that there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.

Some Christian leaders continued to express concern the CCL did not meet regularly and lacked the capacity to manage the affairs of both recognized and nonrecognized Christian groups effectively and fairly, especially in relation to their daily lives.  Most CCL leaders remained based in Jerusalem.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after an August 10 attack targeting Jordanian security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for religious worshippers.  The church leaders stated they especially appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and large events.

Druze continued to worship at and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community.  The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze.  Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, served in parliament and as cabinet ministers.  Druze continued to report discrimination in reaching high positions in government and official departments.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion.  Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for violating the public order if they proselytized Muslims.  Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers living in the country after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks.  Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations and additional requirements were imposed on residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.

There continued to be two recognized Baha’i cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government.  Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is.  In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said, they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process constituting a large financial burden.

The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rolling back of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017.  Intended to promote tolerance, parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel.  The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.

In August amendments to the cybercrimes law were introduced to parliament including increased penalties for a broadened definition of online hate speech, defined as “any statement or act that would provoke religious, sectarian, ethnic, or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumors against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation.”  After sustained public protest, the amendments were withdrawn and re-submitted to parliament with a tighter definition that excluded mention of religion.  The new amendment, still under consideration by parliament at the end of the year, defines hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke “sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

In June the Templeton Foundation announced that King Abdullah would receive the 2018 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.  In the award announcement, the foundation said the king “has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.”  The king received the award in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on November 13.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members.  Some converts from Islam to Christianity reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts.  Some converts from Islam reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media.  Mohammad Nuh al-Qudah, a member of parliament and prominent Muslim preacher, on his online television show criticized females, especially young women, who did not wear the hijab, calling them blasphemous and stupid.

There was also an uptick in hate speech in social media and in the press directed at the Jewish faith after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Articles frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets such as Al Ghad that referred to Judaism in Arabic as “the heresy of the Zionist people,” described estimates of the number of Jews as fabricated, celebrated a perceived decline in the number of Jews, and ended with statements such as “the future is ours.”

Some social media users defended religious freedom, including a mostly critical reaction to al-Qudah’s remarks and calls for his show to be cancelled.  Thousands of Christians and Muslims also left comments online condemning a University of Jordan professor’s lecture in March which criticized the Bible along with the Christian and Jewish faiths.  Following this incident, which provoked condemnation from Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh and other members of parliament, the professor ended his many-year practice of posting lectures online.   

Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions.  Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance; Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.

Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and individuals in interfaith romantic relationships.  Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence.  Individuals in interfaith romantic relationships continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward the individuals involved.

The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups.  In September the JICRC and National Council for Family Affairs hosted a Family and Societal Harmony Conference, which compared the family and institutional experiences of Muslims and Christians in Jordan and explored ways to work together to counter violence, extremism, and terrorism.  Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.

Kazakhstan

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  The national census reports approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school.  Other Islamic groups include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims.

The CSA estimates 26 percent of the population is Christian, the great majority of whom are Russian Orthodox, but also including Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Christian Scientists.  Ethnic Kazakhs or Uzbeks primarily identify as Muslim and ethnic Russians or Ukrainians primarily identify as Christian.

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation.  These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population.  Under the constitution, all people have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs.  These rights, however, are in practice limited to “traditional” or registered religious groups.

In June President Nursultan Nazarbayev renamed the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs the Ministry of Social Development.  The Committee on Religious Affairs within the ministry became the CSA, which continues to regulate the practice of religion in the country.  By law, the MSD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion, as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement.  It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism.  The MSD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship.  All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination.  The MSD cooperates with law enforcement to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so.  The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents, unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.”  It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable with imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization.  The law defines “extremism” as the organization and/or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord that are accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk.  An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.”  The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render and act on a decision to 72 hours.  After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to revoke immediately the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property.  Prosecutors have the right to inspect annually all groups registered with state bodies.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.”  In order to register at the local level, religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice, listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members.  Communities may only be active within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register, unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level.  Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different oblast (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members.  National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 oblasts and the cities of Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent.  Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CSA.  According to the administrative code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 113,450 tenge ($300) and 453,800 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 453,800 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CSA; systemically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws.  Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 113,450 tenge ($300).  Police may impose these fines without first going to court.  The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or its members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning and/or a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 340,350 tenge ($910) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or fails to rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 453,800 tenge ($1,200), the entity is subject to a fine of 1,134,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law prohibits coercive religious activities that harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation.  The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity.  The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the internal regulations of the prison.  The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory.  Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system.  Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners.  They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law.  According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if approved after a religious expert analysis conducted by the CSA.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MSD to regulate it and, together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), oversee the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or other travel for the performance of religious rites.  The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content is allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CSA.  The law limits to one copy per publication an exemption from expert review for importing religious materials for personal use.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association,” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects.  The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s holiday, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria.  The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities.  Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited.  The law allows for after-school and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group.  A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations, as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.”  The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 12.7 million tenge ($33,900) or up to six years’ imprisonment.

In order to perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa.  These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months.  To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country.  The letter of invitation must be approved by the CSA.  Applicants must obtain consent from the CSA each time they apply.  The CSA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CSA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals.  The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CSA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).  Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work.  Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application.  Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal.  A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization in order to work on its behalf.  The local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty may refuse registration to missionaries whose work “constitutes a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights, and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

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

Government Practices

According to AROK, authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment than the previous year.  According to Forum 18, in 2018, authorities brought administrative charges against 165 individuals, religious communities, and charities for violations including attending worship meetings, offering or importing religious literature and pictures, sharing or teaching faith, praying in mosques, and bringing a child to a religious meeting.  Of these, 139 individuals or organizations received fines or bans on religious activity.  In comparison, authorities carried out 284 administrative prosecutions in 2017.  Forum 18’s religious freedom survey released in September for the period 2014 to 2018, however, noted increased numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief, and unfair trials and torture of prisoners.  The survey also noted broadly written laws allowed much scope for arbitrary official actions and a wide range of offenses prosecuted, numbers of prosecutions, and levels of fines.  The survey noted the government made exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permissions, with restrictions on activities allowed; restrictions on freedom of religion and belief for children and youth; complete control being imposed on the Islamic community; girls in headscarves being denied access to education; and prior compulsory religious censorship.

On April 6, a court in Karaganda convicted Kazbek Laubayev, Marat Konrybayev, and Taskali Naurzgaliyev of illegally disseminating ideas and recruiting members for Tabligi Jamaat, which the government banned as extremist in 2013, and sentenced each to three years’ imprisonment.  The men denied their affiliation with Tabligi Jamaat and filed an appeal with the Karaganda regional court.  On May 22, the court rejected their appeal.

Media reported that on May 3, the specialized juvenile court in Sairam in South Kazakhstan Region convicted 18-year-old high school student Shakhsat Ismailov of incitement of religious discord and propagating terrorism, and sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment.  According to the court, Ismailov created a group on social media and disseminated religious extremist materials among his friends and followers.  He denied the charges.

On January 9, a court in Almaty sentenced Yeraltay Abay to seven years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord and propagating of terrorism.  Authorities arrested Abay in September 2017 after he posted an interpretation of a chapter of the Quran on social media.  Abay’s attorney stated that the book from which he copied the text was not banned in the country, and Abay had deleted his posts immediately after law enforcement warned him about the allegedly illegal content.

According to Forum 18 and other sources, authorities arrested Galymzhan Abilkairov and Dadash Mazhenov in April for posting audio recordings of talks by jailed Muslim preacher Kuanysh Bashpayev on social media.  Among other things, the men argued that the talks, which a court in Pavlodar banned as extremist in 2017, were not illegal at the time that they shared them online.  The court in October sentenced both Abilkairov and Mazhenov to more than seven years’ imprisonment.

Forum 18 reported that the Atyrau city court in December convicted two Muslim men, Erzhan Sharmukhambetov and Ermek Kuanshaliyev, and sentenced them both to three and a half years of restricted freedom, a form of probation, for incitement of discord and participating in the activities of a banned religious association.  The two were childhood friends of Sunni Muslim Murat Bakrayev, who was detained in Germany in September at the request of the government.  Authorities accused Bakrayev, who left the country in 2005, of inciting religious hatred, expressing support for terrorism or extremism, and involvement in a banned organization.  According to Forum 18, Bakrayev’s family and friends said that the police arrested Sharmukhambetov and Kuanshaliyev to pressure them to testify against Bakrayev.  At the end of the year, German authorities continued to detain Bakrayev.

On July 9, a court in Aktobe convicted seven followers of the Tabligi Jamaat group for participation in the activities of an extremist organization.  Authorities had arrested them in May.  During the trial, the defendants admitted guilt and “repented.”  The court sentenced two leaders – Zhanat Dosalin and Amanzhol Kishkentekov – to three years’ probation, and the five others to one year of probation and 120 hours of community service.

Media reported that on February 25, police in Kyzylorda city raided the local New Life church during its Sunday service; detained and questioned members of the church, including the pastor; filmed those present against their wishes; and seized religious literature.  The reports stated that police responded to a complaint by parents who claimed their school-aged daughter had attended church services without their permission.  Police took Pastor Serik Beisembayev to a police station, where they interrogated him and initiated a police report.  According to Forum 18, police took approximately 20 church members to the police station where they were released after each had written a statement about why he or she had become Christian and how long the individual had attended the church.  Ultimately, authorities dropped the case against the pastor.

On February 7, the Aktobe court found Pastor Viacheslav Poptsov of the local Evangelical Christian Baptist community guilty of violating the ban on participation of minors in religious services without parental approval.  According to the police investigation, parents of some school-age children who attended the church’s Christmas service did not approve of their children’s attendance.  By law, it was the pastor’s responsibility to check whether minor participants had their parents’ permission.  The court imposed a fine of 120,250 tenge ($320).  In May the court of appeal upheld the district court’s decision.

Forum 18 reported that 20 Muslims were taken to court for saying “amen” aloud in mosques in violation of SAMK’s code of conduct, which is punishable by law as an administrative offense.  Those arrested paid administrative fines.

On August 24, Kyzylkoginsky district court in Atyrau Region ruled a resident of Miyaly village violated the law when, during the Friday service, he said “amen” aloud.  The court fined the man 84,175 tenge ($220).

Courts continued to fine individuals for illegal missionary activity.  Religious organizations noted that local law enforcement continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions.

On January 23, the administrative court of Balkhash in Karaganda Region found Nikolay Popov of the local community of the Council of Baptist Churches guilty of illegal missionary activity and distribution of religious literature not approved by official government experts.  The court imposed a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  According to police investigators, Popov traveled to villages near Balkhash, talked to people about his faith, and gave them religious books.

On August 6, the Korday district court in Zhambyl Region found two local residents, Aidar Kharsanov and his wife Zarina Manu, guilty of illegal missionary activity.  According to police investigators, the couple taught the Quran to a group of school-aged girls without formal registration as religious missionaries.  The couple admitted their actions, but both appealed to the Zhambyl Regional Court on August 22 after the court imposed fines of 360,750 tenge ($960) for Kharsonov and 120,250 tenge ($320) for Manu.  Forum 18 noted that neither of the accused was represented by a lawyer.

On February 8, in three separate trials, the Sarykol District court in Kostanay Region found Jehovah’s Witnesses Estay Asainov, Maksim Ivakhnik, and Timur Koshkunbayev guilty of “illegal missionary activity” and imposed fines of 168,350 tenge ($450) each.  On February 13, the Sarykol District court found 79-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Taisiya Yezhova guilty of violating the requirements of the law on holding religious ceremonies and meetings by holding meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses at her house.  The court imposed a fine of 85,000 tenge ($230).  In initiating the court case, Yezhova’s neighbors complained about what they called her persistent attempts to draw them into her faith.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law.  Community representatives reported that the number of police actions and court cases initiated against them decreased compared to 2017, but authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels, and police followed and surveilled them as in prior years.  The government banned community members who were fined and did not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.  Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches and 14 administrative court cases during the year.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing from schools.  The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country.  According to media, in March 200 parents of schoolgirls in Aktobe Region who were barred from attending classes for wearing religious headscarves appealed to the president.  Media reported that authorities issued administrative fines to eighteen parents, 32 families moved to different regions where the national ban was not yet being enforced, and the rest chose to comply with the school rules.  Subsequently, on September 14 the Aktobe court convicted three fathers who had continued to insist that their daughters be allowed to attend classes wearing headscarves.  According to media, the men had reportedly threatened teachers at the school.  The court sentenced Nuraly Shakkozov to three days in prison and Medet Kudaibergenov and Zhanibek Otaliyev each to five days’ imprisonment.

Media reported that on September 1, authorities prevented approximately 300 girls wearing religious headscarves from attending classes in Firdousi village in South Kazakhstan Region.  The government, at the direction of Minister of Education and Science Yerlan Sagadiyev, dispatched a special commission to the region to explain the ministry’s rule and the principle of secular education and to persuade the girls’ parents to comply with the ban.  Most of the girls agreed, although 15 switched to other schools where the regulation was not yet enforced.  Thirteen parents were punished with fines of 12,025 tenge ($32).  Before sending the special commission, Sagadiyev, in commenting on the situation in Firdousi, told a reporter “according to the law, school girls in headscarves are not allowed to attend classes.”

On October 12, the Supreme Court declined to review lower court decisions against residents of West Kazakhstan Region who had protested the education ministry’s ban on religious headscarves in school.  The lower court determined that the country’s constitution supported such a regulation.

According to Forum 18, a group of 107 Muslim parents from three of the country’s regions, whose school-age daughters were barred from attending school because they wore headscarves, planned a further appeal to the Supreme Court.  The parents’ case failed previously in the lower courts, including Astana City Court on March 27.  They argued that the ban was a violation of the country’s constitution and international human rights norms.

The parliament considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty.  Government representatives justified the draft legislation as necessary to address security concerns created by “religious extremism.”  Among the government’s justifications for the legislation was that people arrested for undertaking religious activities without government permission were “a risk group.”  Government officials at the end of the year indicated that it was unlikely that the draft legislation would become law.

On March 30, a research institute attached to the former Religious Affairs Department of West Kazakhstan Region instructed some local registered Christian communities to submit by April 10 full names, ages, place of study, and national identification numbers of all people under the age of 18 who come to meetings for worship, Forum 18 reported.  The official who sent the letter stated to Forum 18 the information was needed for “monitoring.”  According to Forum 18, the official stated that the request was sent only to Christians, and “selectively,” refusing to explain what “selectively” meant.

On July 10, pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling, the Kokshetau Administrative Court extended an official apology and ordered the return of a fine of 173,100 tenge ($460) to Jehovah’s Witnesses congregant Andrey Korolev.  A court had convicted Korolev of conducting illegal missionary activity in 2013.  While authorities continued to conduct raids of services and detain participants, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that four Supreme Court rulings issued since 2017 overturned lower court decisions and affirmed Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to freely practice their religion, including the right to proselytize.

On April 2, the president pardoned Teymur Akhmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness who had served more than one year of a five-year sentence on charges he had “incited religious discord” by talking about his faith with men identified as university students.  Akhmedov suffered from cancer and the government previously had transferred him from prison to a hospital.

On July 10, atheist blogger Aleksandr Kharlamov won a civil lawsuit against the government.  The court determined that Kharlamov, who spent five years under investigation for charges of “incitement of religious discord,” suffered emotional and physical harm as a result of the prolonged and restrictive investigation and awarded him more than 1 million tenge ($2,700) in damages and court expenses.  Among other restrictions, after his arrest in 2013, authorities detained Kharlamov for six months, including one month in a psychiatric hospital.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization.  The government allowed the church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but did not allow the church to engage in religious activity.

The MSD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs said this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK.  The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw.  All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and officially unable to practice in the country, though some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.  By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval over any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered, after authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in June 2016.  Government experts previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that the community needed to remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials.  During the year, the group attempted to engage in dialogue with the MSD and continued to prepare documents for its next reregistration application.  Community members reported that, due to lack of registration, they did not engage in any official religious activity.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques.  In February then-Minister of Religious and Civil Society Affairs Nurlan Yermekbayev criticized the construction of new mosques while, he said, others remained empty or were put up for sale.  Eighty-four out of 3,601 mosques were not being used, he said.

According to the CSA, there were 3,715 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared to 3,692 in 2017.  The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,591 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over construction of new mosques, appointment of imams, and administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams.  The SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens.  Saudi Arabia increased its 2018 pilgrimage quota for Kazakhstani Muslims to 3,000, from 2,500 the previous year.  The MSD worked closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrasahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or PhD programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels.  The CSA published information about schools for religious training, including 11 schools for Sunni Hanafi imams, one school for Roman Catholic clergy, and one school for Russian Orthodox clergy.

MSD officials continued to monitor the internet, collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content, applying expedited procedures for the evaluation of such materials by religious experts, and obtaining court authorizations for immediate closures of internet sites it deemed unacceptable. In 2017, the ministry detected 3,555 websites containing what it considered illegal and harmful information.  In the first quarter of 2018, the ministry analyzed the content of 2,299 websites and determined that 700 of them contained what it considered illegal and harmful information.  Media reported the MSD forwarded the negatively assessed online content to the Ministry of Digital Development, Defense and Aerospace Industry’s Information Security Committee for further consideration and potential action, such as blocking the websites.  On September 20, Dr. Aidar Abuov, Director of the MSD’s International Center of Culture and Religions, stated that monitoring of domestic Internet, social media, and news media had revealed “practically no” extremist materials.

The MSD and other authorities continued to inspect religious facilities regularly to review compliance with security requirements mandated by the counterterrorism law, such as utilization of security cameras and maintenance of recorded data for at least 30 days.  There were fewer complaints about security inspections conducted by the authorities compared to 2017.  The Pentecostal Harvest Church received a 176,750 tenge ($470) fine on March 15 for failure to store video surveillance recordings for the required 30-day minimum.

On February 22, the administrative court in Shymkent ruled that the local New Life church violated fire safety regulations.  Although the pastor of the church stated that he had complied with the results of an inspection a month earlier and installed additional fire detectors, the judge levied a fine of 240,550 tenge ($640) and ordered a one-month suspension of the church’s activity.  The pastor submitted an appeal and on March 20, the court of appeals overturned the administrative court’s decision, citing a lack of evidence that the church had violated the law.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons had a dedicated specialist to create programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the minister of internal affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism.

Religious community representatives and civil society actors expressed hope that the government renaming the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs the Ministry of Social Development would lead to a reduced focus on policing religious practice and increased tolerance for religious diversity and expression.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

AROK and minority Christian religious communities reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017.  In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” concerning the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk.  According to the article, church activists lured children to church by holding holiday entertainment events despite the disapproval of their parents.  According to the author, there had been an increase in the number of complaints about what he called the Baptists’ unreasonable and persistent missionary activity.

The KIBHR and other civil society organizations reported that they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society.  According to KIBHR, the letters appeared to be copied from a template, with identical content and format.  KIBHR reported receiving these letters regularly every two to three weeks, leading them and other recipient organizations to suspect they were part of a campaign aimed at creating a negative image of the faiths involved.

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming indicated “nontraditional” beliefs, including Muslim headscarves and beards.

Kenya

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 48.4 million (July 2018 estimate), of which approximately 83 percent is Christian and 11 percent Muslim.  Groups constituting less than 2 percent of the population include Hindus, Sikhs, and Baha’is.  Much of the remaining 4-5 percent of the population adheres to various traditional religious beliefs.  Non-evangelical Protestants account for 48 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 23 percent, and other Christian denominations, including evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals, 12 percent.  Most of the Muslim population lives in the northeast and coastal regions, where religion and ethnicity (e.g., Somali and Mijikenda ethnic groups) are often linked.  The Dadaab refugee camps are home to approximately 209,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are ethnic Somali Muslims.  The Kakuma refugee camp is home to approximately 186,000 refugees, including Somalis, South Sudanese, and Ethiopians, who practice a variety of religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there shall be no state religion and prohibits religious discrimination.  The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief individually or in communities, including the freedom to manifest any religion through worship, practice, teaching, or observance.  The constitution also states individuals shall not be compelled to act or engage in any act contrary to their belief or religion.  These rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.”

The constitution requires parliament to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion.  The constitution also specifically provides for qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law, including questions relating to personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance in cases in which “all the parties profess the Muslim religion.”  The country’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the qadi courts, and accepts appeals of any qadi court decision.

Although there is no penal law referring to blasphemy, a section of the penal code states that destroying, damaging, or defiling any place of worship or object held sacred with the intention of insulting the religion of any class of persons is a misdemeanor.  This offense carries a penalty of a fine or up to two years in prison but is reportedly rarely prosecuted using this law.  Crimes against church property are more likely to be treated as malicious destruction of property, which is also a misdemeanor.

According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office.  Indigenous and traditional religious groups are not required to register, and many do not.  To register, applicants must have valid national identification documents, pay a fee, and undergo security screening.  Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status, including exemption from duty on imported goods.  The law also requires that organizations dedicated to advocacy, public benefit, or the promotion of charity or research register with the NGO Coordination Board.

All public schools have religious education classes taught by government-funded teachers.  The national curriculum mandates religious classes, and students may not opt out.  Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but are not required to offer both.

The law establishes fees for multiple steps in the marriage process, which apply to all marriages, religious or secular.  All officiants are required to purchase an annual license, and all public marriage venues must be registered.

The Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology must approve regional radio and television broadcast licenses, including for religious organizations.

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

Government Practices

Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations stated the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately impacted Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border.  The government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture and forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship.

Prosecution was pending at year’s end of Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi of the Good News International Ministries and his wife Joyce Mwikamba, whom, in October 2017 in the coastal city of Malindi in Kilifi County, authorities charged with radicalizing children by teaching them to reject medical care, enticing them to drop out of school, and teaching them formal education is evil.  According to multiple press reports, police raided Makenzi’s church and rescued children who had abandoned their homes and schools to follow Makenzi’s ministry.

The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end.  According to the Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, more than 4,400 religious group applications were pending as of the start of the year.  In 2016 the government withdrew proposed Religious Societies Rules in response to religious leaders’ objections after a meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and religious leaders.  Religious leaders reported the attorney general proposed the rules to make leaders of religious organizations more accountable for financial dealings and radical or violent teachings.  The government agreed to consult religious leaders and the public and allow them to provide input on a new draft.

In January the High Court in Nairobi overturned the registration suspension of the AIK imposed after court hearings in 2017.  The attorney general suspended AIK’s registration due to questions surrounding the issue of the group’s constitutional rights.  Opponents of AIK’s registration argued AIK’s beliefs were not consistent with the constitution, stating the constitution “recognizes Kenya as a country that believes in God.”

In July the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) reinstated three priests who had been dismissed in 2015 on suspicion of homosexual acts.  Shortly after their dismissal, an Employment and Labor Relations judge ordered the Church to reinstate the priests, citing a lack of any evidentiary findings against them.  The ACK reinstated the priests after a court ordered the Church provide back pay and held the presiding bishop in contempt for having failed to adhere to the 2015 ruling.  Protesters, however, prevented the priests from returning to work at their parishes.

An appeal by the Methodist Church was still pending at year’s end regarding a 2016 ruling by the Court of Appeal that Muslim female students be allowed to wear a hijab as part of their school uniforms.  The ruling overturned a 2015 High Court verdict that declared hijabs were discriminatory because they created disparity among students.  In filings to the Supreme Court in September, the attorney general and Teachers Service Commission continued to support the right to wear the hijab in schools.  Religious leaders reported public schools complied with the Court of Appeals’ ruling, while some private schools – particularly religious ones – continued to insist students remove the hijab.  Schools applied the ruling to members of the Akorino religious group, which combines Christian and African styles of worship and requires adherents to cover their heads with turbans for men (referred to as headgear) and veils for women.

Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab.  The Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian government body that investigates police misconduct, reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police.  Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab.

Religious leaders reported the government sought to circumvent a legal prohibition on taxing religious organizations by applying certain regulations to both religious and secular institutions, such as requiring licensing fees for marriage officiants and venues for large social meetings.  Religious leaders stated the fee regulations were unevenly enforced, although not in a discriminatory manner.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Authorities received more than 150 reports of terrorist attacks in the northeast of the country bordering Somalia by al-Shabaab and its sympathizers that targeted non-Muslims.  In one such attack in September, al-Shabaab reportedly ordered travelers to disembark a bus in Lamu County, then identified and killed the two Christians before letting the other travelers proceed.

On February 23, al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers near Wajir Town.  Reports indicated that, following the attack, more than 60 teachers fled Wajir and neighboring Mandera.  In June the Kenya National Union of Teachers presented a report to the Senate Education Committee detailing the plight of nonlocal teachers in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa Counties.  According to the report, female teachers “suffered discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, and language,” including being forced to wear deeras (long dresses) and hijabs.

On January 24, media reported al-Shabaab militants raided a village in the Lamu region where they forced villagers to listen to “radical” preaching and hoisted a black flag at the deserted police station.  The militants called upon all civilians to enroll their children in Arabic and Islamic education classes, causing many to flee the scene due to fear of violence.  Many villagers fled the area, and a number of schools remained closed because of security concerns.

Al-Shabaab remained the focus of government antiterror and police efforts throughout the northeast and coastal region.

In October a group of residents in Bungale, Magarini Sub County of Kilifi County, reportedly burned down a house belonging to a pastor associated with the Malindi televangelist, Paul Makenzi.  The group also demolished a Good News International Ministries church and residence belonging to Pastor Titus Katana, also linked to Makenzi.  The group threatened to kill Katana and demanded he leave the area.  Local government officials reported that residents took action following claims Makenzi was promoting extremism and indoctrinating followers with what they characterized as false Christian teachings that included opposition to formal education for children and rejection of modern medicine.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.

Authorities continued to receive reports of threats of violence towards individuals based on religious attire and expressions of intolerance toward members of other faiths.  Since religion and ethnicity are closely linked, authorities could not categorize many incidents as being based exclusively on religious identity.

According to NGO sources, some Muslim community leaders and their families were threatened with violence or death, especially some individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity, particularly those of Somali ethnic origin.

Interreligious NGOs and political leaders said tensions remained high between Muslim and Christian communities because of terrorist attacks in recent years.  Non-Muslims reportedly harassed or treated with suspicion persons of Somali origin, who were predominantly Muslim.  Police officers often did not serve in their home regions, and therefore officers in some Muslim majority areas were largely non-Muslim.  Religious leaders suggested, anecdotally, that some Muslim youths responded to reported police abuses by largely non-Muslim police forces by vandalizing properties of local Christians.

A two-year survey conducted by DevTech systems on indicators of violent extremism found that fundamental religious beliefs alone do not lead to violent extremism, but that violent extremists often manipulate or invoke religion and ethnic tensions to frame grievances, divide communities, and justify violence.  When asked about the perceptions of ethnic and religious social cohesion, acceptance of identity-based grievances, and the use of violence to defend religious beliefs, 83 percent of respondents believed they could practice their religion freely.  Reports of discrimination were highest in Nairobi at 24 percent.  Nationally, 84 percent of respondents said diversity made the country a better place to live, and 25 percent said violence was always justified in defending one’s religion or culture.

Religious leaders representing interfaith groups, including the Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, engaged with political parties and the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission in the national reconciliation process following violent 2017 presidential elections.  Representatives of a number of religious organizations participated in an October National Dialogue Reference Group conference to promote national healing and identify social cohesion challenges.

Kuwait

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.9 million (July 2018 estimate).  The Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, reports there are 1.4 million citizens and 3.3 million noncitizens.  The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  The PACI estimates approximately 70 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims, while the remaining 30 percent are Shia Muslims (including Ahmadi and Ismaili Muslims, whom the government counts as Shia).  Community leaders have indicated there are 290 Christian citizens and a handful of Baha’i citizens.  There are no known Jewish citizens.

In June the PACI released statistics indicating 64 percent of expatriates are Muslim, 26 percent Christian, and 10 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths.  Sources in various expatriate communities also said approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslims are Shia, while Buddhists and Hindus account for half of the non-Abrahamic faith population.  Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate there are approximately 250,000 Hindus, 25,000 Bohra Muslims, 10,000-12,000 Sikhs, 7,000 Druze, and 400 Baha’is.

While some geographic areas have higher concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, the two groups are distributed relatively uniformly throughout most of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and the freedom of belief to be “absolute.”  It provides for state protection of the freedom to practice all religions, provided such practice is “in accordance with established customs, and does not conflict with public policy or morals.”

The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion.  It declares the emir shall be Muslim (the emir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam.  The Higher Advisory Committee on Completion of the Application of Islamic Sharia Provisions in the Amiri Diwan (office of the emir) makes recommendations to the emir on ways to bring laws into better conformity with sharia.  The committee is an eight-member advisory body to the Amiri Diwan, led by the president of the committee.  The Council of Ministers appoints members to three-year terms.  Traditionally, five of the members are religious scholars (jurisprudence and sharia experts) and two specialize in economics and law.  The committee functions in an advisory role and has no authority to implement or enforce its recommendations.

The law states apostates lose certain legal rights, including the right to inherit property from Muslim relatives or spouses, but it does not specify any criminal penalty.  If a Muslim man married to a Muslim woman converts from Islam, his existing marriage is annulled.  If he is married to a non-Muslim woman and converts from Islam, then the marriage is still valid.  If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to another Abrahamic faith (Christianity or Judaism), then the marriage is not automatically annulled, but the Muslim husband may request an annulment.  If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to a non-Abrahamic faith, then the marriage is automatically annulled.

The law prohibits the defamation of the Abrahamic religions and denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures within accepted Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., prophets mentioned in the Quran or companions of Muhammad), and prescribes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for each offense.

A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group.  Violations of this law by individuals are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars ($33,000 to $330,000).  Repeated crimes carry double penalties.  If a group or an organization violates the law, it could have its license to operate revoked temporarily or permanently, and it could be fined up to 200,000 dinars ($660,000).

The law allows citizens to file criminal charges against anyone they believe has defamed any of the three recognized Abrahamic religions or harmed public morals.

The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 dinars ($33,000 to $660,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.  Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.

There is no promulgated process outlining what religious groups need to submit to register with the government.  In practice, groups navigate the process without much guidance from government offices.  Although all religious groups must apply in writing for a license from their municipality to establish an official place of worship and to gain the full benefits of being a registered religion with the central government, there are no transparent criteria that must be met for a registration application to be approved.  To obtain an official license, groups must first register with the MAIA.  If the registration application is granted, further approvals are required by the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) and the Ministry of Interior (MOI).  Once these three ministries approve the registration application, the municipality must grant the final approval/license, which requires the community leaders to obtain written permission from all the immediate neighbors occupying the properties around the proposed place of worship.  In practice, the government often provides applicants with no information about the status of their pending registration, or if they have been rejected at any point.  There is no recourse to appeal the decision, as it is considered a “sovereign act” that cannot be challenged in court.

There are seven officially registered and licensed Christian churches:  National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (NECK) (Protestant); Roman Catholic; Greek Catholic (Melkite); Coptic Orthodox; Armenian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox; and Anglican.  There are no officially recognized synagogues, and according to the MAIA, no application has ever been submitted for one.  The government does not recognize any non-Abrahamic religions.  Nonrecognized religious groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims and Baha’is.

A religious group with a license to establish a place of worship may hire its own staff, sponsor visitors to the country, open bank accounts, and import texts needed for its congregation.  Nonregistered religious groups do not have these abilities (although some registered religious groups have agreed to assist nonregistered groups in these matters).  Additionally, nonregistered groups may not purchase property or sponsor workers and must rely on volunteers from within their community for resources.

The law prohibits practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law, including anything the government deems to be sorcery or black magic, which under the penal code constitutes “fraud and deception” and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The law does not specifically prohibit proselytizing, but individuals promoting proselytism may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.

The law prohibits eating, drinking, and smoking in public between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, including for non-Muslims, with a prescribed maximum penalty of up to 100 dinars ($330) and/or one month’s imprisonment.

It is illegal to possess or import pork products and alcohol.  Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to 1,000 dinars ($3,300).

Islamic religious instruction is mandatory at all levels for all Muslim students in public schools and in private schools with one or more Muslim students enrolled, regardless of whether the student is a citizen.  Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes, and there is no penalty for not doing so.  The law prohibits organized religious education in public high schools for faiths other than Islam.  All Islamic education courses are based on Sunni Islam.

Religious courts administer personal status law dealing with issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.  For non-Muslims, courts apply Sunni sharia in matters of personal status and family law.  Expatriates of non-Abrahamic religions are also subject to sharia if family matters are taken to court.  According to the law, sharia governs inheritance for all residents regardless of their religious affiliation if the case is brought to court.

The law forbids and does not recognize marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other Abrahamic faiths.  The law requires the raising of children of such marriages in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes.  Muslim marriage cases are heard in Sunni or Shia religious courts, depending on whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia.  A Shia notary must authenticate a Shia marriage certificate.  Non-Muslim divorce and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts.  Christian couples who are part of a registered church may marry and divorce as per their religious customs, and local authorities and courts recognize their religious documents.  Except for Hindus and Sikhs of Indian nationality, who may marry at the Embassy of India, members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches may not marry in the country, but may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized.  Citizens of the Baha’i Faith may marry abroad and petition the court to recognize their marriage.

Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia at the first instance and appellate levels.  If the case proceeds beyond the appellate level to the Court of Cassation, the case is adjudicated via Sunni personal status law.  An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments.  Cases are assigned to either Sunni or Shia judges based on the religious affiliation of the man.  If a man is married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed.  If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the settlement offered by the church may be taken into consideration; however, if the dispute is not settled, Sunni sharia is applied.

If a religious group wishes to purchase land, a citizen must be the primary buyer, and must submit a request for approval to the local municipal council, which allocates land at its discretion.  Citizens may also rent or donate land to religious groups.

The law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims but allows male citizens of any religion to transmit citizenship to their descendants.  Female citizens, regardless of religion, are unable to transmit nationality to their offspring.

An individual’s religion is not included on passports or national identity documents, with the exception of birth and marriage certificates, on which it is mandatory.  On birth certificates issued to Muslims, there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths are not able to list their religion on their birth certificate and a dash (-) is denoted in place of their religion.

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

Government Practices

Media reported that in January the Criminal Court sentenced Fouad Al-Rifai, a self-proclaimed preacher and owner of the NGO “Wathakker Centre,” to eight years in prison with labor for posting a video inciting violence against Shia citizens and for contempt of Shia Islam through Twitter posts that contained abusive phrases against Shia Islam.  Media reported subsequently that the government ordered his center, which was registered under the Ministry of Commerce, be closed for one year.

The government pursued several cases against individuals for allegedly insulting Shia doctrine.  In March the Court of Appeals overturned the acquittal verdict of Salafist cleric Othman Al-Khamees on a case dating back to 2015 related to charges of violating the national unity law, insulting Shia Islam by calling it “deviant doctrine,” and stirring up sectarianism through YouTube posts.  The court also fined him 20,000 dinars ($66,000).  In September the Court of Cassation fined MP Mohammed Hayf 2,000 dinars ($6,600) for insulting Shia MP Saleh Ashour and defaming Shia Islam via Twitter posts in which he described Ashour as representing the “Takfiri school of Shia doctrine” (meaning Hayf accused Ashour of being a Shia extremist who called other Muslims non-believers).

According to press reports, in June the Court of Appeals reduced by four months the sentence of journalist and secular activist Abdul Aziz Abdullah al-Qenaei.  In 2017, a court of misdemeanors had convicted al-Qenaei in a blasphemy case for “contempt of Islam” and “slander of sharia” for comments he made on a program aired by the Qatar-based television channel Al-Jazeera.  During the program, he stated freedom did not exist in Islam and that sharia involved “criminal acts” and promoted extremism and terrorism.  Many individuals reacted to his comments by posting on social media that those who insulted Islam and sharia in this way were “atheists.”  He was originally sentenced to six months imprisonment with labor, but his sentence was suspended pending the appeal process.

Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion unless the conversion was from another religion to Islam.  As in previous years, some religious leaders from non-Muslim religious groups said they had not heard of any case of a Muslim desiring to change religion, while others said they would not convert a Muslim in Kuwait.  All religious leaders, regardless of faith, continued to state that their sole mission was to take care of their existing community.  A few leaders refused to speak about conversion.

Media sources reported MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with MAIA guidelines to refrain from discussing political issues and insulting other religions in their sermons or at any other time while in the country.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet and appoint all new Sunni imams.  Media sources quoted senior MAIA officials as saying the government vetted every Sunni imam to ensure compliance with the government’s view of moderate and tolerant religious preaching.  The Shia community continued to select its own clerics without government oversight.

The government continued to provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques and to monitor these sermons.  Sunni imams could add content to the sermons but needed to ensure the text adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism.  MAIA required Sunni imams to send a recorded audio of their sermons to MAIA for review.  MAIA also relied on reports of worshipers and others who might be unsatisfied if the imam discussed politics or insulted other faiths.  Shia sources and government authorities said the government did not officially monitor Shia clerics, who were free to write their own sermons as long as they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism.  If a questionable video appeared on social media or a worshipper reported a cleric, the government investigated.  Some sources, however, believed the government unofficially monitored Shia clerics.  According to officials at MAIA and members of the Shia community, MAIA did not monitor sermons or other activities at the husseiniyas (Shia halls for religious commemorations) or at private gatherings.

During the year, MAIA organized several courses for Sunni imams to make their messages more effectively promote tolerance and counter radicalization.  MAIA also established an annual award for imams for “creativity and excellence in countering radicalization.”

In January MAIA announced it would increase efforts to promote national unity and strengthen religious tolerance and promote moderate interpretations of Islam.  MAIA did not announce any specific results by year’s end.

Media reported that in December MAIA suspended Sheikh Fahad al-Kandari, who was preaching at the Hisham ibn Amer Mosque in Kuwait City, for “publicly exaggerating the praise of the Prophet and asking Allah to shower mercy and forgiveness on Amina bint Wahab, the mother of the Prophet,” who had died before Islam.  According to media reports, al-Kandari said MAIA suspended him without first questioning him and he would file a grievance and a lawsuit.

The government funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques, and paid the salaries of all Sunni imams.  The Shia community generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques.  The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams; some Shia mosques requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.

According to the government, during the year MAIA investigated nine imams it considered to have made provocative statements that violated laws against harming national unity or insulting other religious groups.  MAIA warned four imams, reprimanded two, and suspended two permanently.  One imam’s case remained under investigation at year’s end.

In May the Court of Cassation fined a blogger 10,000 dinars ($33,000) for violating the national unity law, showing contempt for Shia Islam, and inciting hatred and sectarianism.

According to representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in December the Church submitted an application to be officially registered with MAIA.

Representatives of registered churches continued to state the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faiths.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to state they remained free to practice their religion in private but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they disturbed their neighbors or violated laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.  They also continued to say they avoided conflict with authorities by not proselytizing or disparaging the government or other faiths.  Many of these groups said they did not publicly advertise religious events or gatherings to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their organizations both from the public and from government authorities.

Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to say they experienced hardships in commemorating major life events.  Almost uniformly across these communities, members said they lacked sufficient religious facilities and religious leaders or clerics to lead prayers, bless births and marriages, and conduct appropriate death rituals.

In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflict internally within their communities rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.

The government continued to require religious groups to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for commemorations.  Municipal governments retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniya not complying with the municipality’s rules.  Minority religious communities continued to state they tried to keep a low profile and did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities, which they presumed would be rejected if they applied for it.

The MOI provided security and protection for licensed places of worship.  Religious leaders of Abrahamic faiths continued to report that the government, citing security concerns, kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances, instituted following an ISIS bombing of a Shia mosque in 2015 that killed 27 persons.  The government continued to require the Shia community to conduct Ashura activities inside closed structures rather than at outdoor locations.  The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura.  The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to possible attacks.  The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.  Members of the various faiths said they were grateful for the added security.

Authorities continued the government’s long-standing practice of prohibiting churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or the congregation’s name.

No public shops could legally import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature.  Church leaders continued to report the government permitted registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam.  Registered churches reported they were able to import religious materials in any language.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to state they could import religious materials for their congregations as long as they brought in the materials as personal items when entering the country and did not try to sell them in public stores.  Minority religious communities said they continued to be selective in the religious materials they imported and even more selective in giving access to the materials.  They said they did not allow the circulation of these materials outside their congregations.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the municipality of Kuwait handled building permits and land issues for non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches.  The government continued to prohibit non-Abrahamic religions and nonregistered churches from having public places of worship.  The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year.

Some religious groups without a licensed place of worship stated they could conduct worship services without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.  The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches.

Shia community members reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones.  MAIA reported there were 1,601 mosques in the country, including 40 mosques opened during the year.  According to the government, of the 1,601 mosques, 51 were Shia, with five new Shia mosques receiving permission to be built during the year.  There were also 20-30 husseiniyas registered with MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes.

Citing security concerns, authorities stated they continued to take action against unlicensed mosques.  The government tasked MAIA, MOI, the municipality of Kuwait, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of illegal mosques.  During the year, the government continued to raid makeshift mosques in remote areas and close them for operating without proper licenses.  MAIA also received a mandate from the Council of Ministers to demolish 115 unregistered mosques, stating that some of those mosques served as platforms of extremism.  The demolition of these mosques began during the year.  Authorities said new unlicensed mosques continued to open, however.

The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials, including fiction and nonfiction books and textbooks, referring to the Holocaust or Israel.  The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays.  Members of non-Islamic faiths largely said the government did not interfere with religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.

According to church leaders, although most churches provided faith-based instruction for children, none of them had government-accredited church-based schools.  Accreditation for church-based schools would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling government requirements and allow school graduates to move on to higher education.  The NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities had not responded by year’s end.  The Armenian Church and the Bohra Muslim community operated accredited community schools in lieu of seeking accreditation as religious schools.  Other groups continued to report they conducted religious studies in their places of worship.

The government continued its practice of not responding to requests to establish Shia religious training institutions.  Shia Muslims had to seek religious training and education abroad.  The College of Islamic Law at Kuwait University, the country’s only imam training institution, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.

Shia leaders continued to report that the lack of Shia imams limited their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases.  To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc council the government created many years ago under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function.  Shia leaders said the establishment of a Shia Court of Cassation, approved in 2003, remained delayed because the government had not approved the establishment of Shia religious training institutions.

According to press reports, in July two parliamentarians submitted a request to the prime minister to have the MOJ stop enforcing a 1966 ministry decision that prohibits registration of local marriages between persons of the Baha’i Faith.  The prime minister referred the request to the MOJ for action.  The issue remained pending at year’s end.

Even though Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they remained underrepresented at all levels of government:  six of 50 members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately few senior officers in the military and police force.  Shia community leaders continued to say there was a “glass ceiling” in promotions and difficulties in obtaining government jobs.

Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions and leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.  In July MP Saleh Ashour commented on Twitter that the new group of public prosecutor recruits included 94 Sunnis and just three Shia.  He added that there was only one Shia graduate student among the top 10 highest achievers at Kuwait University’s law school and he was excluded from the 2018 public prosecution recruiting class.  Some Shia leaders said authorities made decisions about employment in a nontransparent manner and did not treat Shia fairly or give them equal opportunities.

MOSA issued visas for clergy and other staff to work at licensed places of worship.  The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but granted additional slots upon request.  The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers.  Leaders of non-Abrahamic faiths continued to report their religious leaders could only lead their religious communities outside the regular hours of their nonreligious employment.

Media coverage included news on events and celebrations held by various Christian denominations in the country such as Christmas Mass celebrations and church inauguration anniversaries attended by high-level government officials.  On January 7, Deputy State Minister for Amiri Diwan Affairs Sheikh Ali al-Jarrah and other public officials attended the Egyptian Coptic Church’s Christmas Mass in Hawally.  On November 16, representatives of the emir attended the 70th anniversary of the inauguration of St. Paul’s Church in Ahmadi.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be societal pressure against conversion from Islam, according to minority religious leaders and citizens.  Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country.  Some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them due to their conversion from Islam.

Hotels, stores, and other businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  During the Christmas season, Christmas trees and lights appeared in stores, malls, and homes, and Christmas music played in public places, including songs with Christian lyrics.

News media continued to print information about religious holiday celebrations, including material on the religious significance of Christmas.

Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval via social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays.  Dr. Nazim Al-Misbah, a well-known Sunni cleric, tweeted in December that “the celebration of Christmas is not permitted in our Sharia because it is a religious festival for the Christians.”

The NGO MEMRI reported several instances during the year of clerics and others making statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews.  According to MEMRI, on January 6, a licensed imam, Mohammed Al-Humoud Al-Najdi, posted an anti-Semitic lecture on the “Traits of the Jews” on YouTube, during which he said, “Treacherousness is a principle deeply ingrained in the nature of the Jews.”  On January 10, Bassam Al-Shatti, a licensed imam and a lecturer in the Religious Faith and Preaching Department at Kuwait University, published a column called “Traits of the Jews” in the Al-Anba daily newspaper.  Among the anti-Semitic comments he made, Al-Shatti wrote that Jews “spread corruption, drugs, alcohol, licentiousness, and abomination in the world among the peoples.”

The NECK continued to allow 85 unregistered congregations to use its facilities.

Laos

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2015 national census (the most recent figures available), 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent Christian, 31.4 percent has no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent identify as other or having a nonlisted religion.  Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population.  According to the LFNC and MOHA, the remainder of the population comprises at least 48 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship.  Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups.  Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas.  Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’is, Mahayana Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) members, and followers of Confucianism together constitute less than 3 percent of the population.  According to the international Christian rights NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s 2018 Religious Freedom Report, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population.  The Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) estimates its membership at 200,000 and the Catholic Church estimates its at 55,000.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right and freedom to believe or not believe in any religion and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group.  The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.  It generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups in order to operate legally.  The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions, and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.”  It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of persons.

Decree 315, enacted in 2016, upholds “respect for the religious rights and freedom” of both believers and nonbelievers.  The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.”  The decree clarifies rules for religious practice, extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously had a de facto exemption, and defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities.  The decree reiterates the constitutional priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.

The decree requires any religious group operating in the country to register with MOHA.  The government encourages other religious groups seeking official recognition to affiliate with one of the four umbrella groups.  Government-recognized Christian denominations are limited to the Catholic Church, the LEC, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  All other Christian denominations wishing to be recognized are encouraged to register as part of the LEC instead of receiving separate recognition.

Under the decree, religious groups must present information on elected or appointed officeholders to national, provincial, and district and village-level MOHA offices for review and certification.  Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval.  If a group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, it must obtain approval at the corresponding level.  A religious activity occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village authority approval.  Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province.  Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities, including routine events, in advance for local authorities to review and approve.

The decree states nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, travel for religious officials, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a provincial, district-level, and/or central MOHA office.  The decree empowers MOHA to order the cessation of any religious activities or beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction.  It may stop any religious activity threatening national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others.  The decree also requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

All houses of worship must register under the law and conform to applicable regulations.  Any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities must receive MOHA approval from all levels.  Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask MOHA to review and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

The Decree on Associations, No. 238, passed in late 2017, allows government to control and/or prohibit the formation of associations and includes measures to criminalize unregistered associations and allow for prosecution of their members.

Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable.  For a period of less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve.  The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.

The Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies.  Generally, students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) require approval from the MOES.  Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.

According to the LFNC Law as amended in April, the LFNC may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.”  LFNC officials may listen to opinions and concerns of religious communities in order to work with police or other authorities to investigate and resolve problems.

The government controls written materials for religious audiences.  The decree regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions.  The Ministry of Culture and MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported.  MOHA may require religious groups to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religions, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country.  The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.

The decree states the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

The decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.  The central government said it continued efforts to offer protections to religious groups as stipulated in the law, but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas.

In August a pastor with close connections to Christians throughout the country reported that district authorities in Mahaxsai District in Khammoune Province told a group of Christians to stop worshipping and then tried to extort money from them.  When the group did not give them any money, the authorities arrested the group leader and detained him for five days.

In September authorities detained seven members of the LEC for a week at a district jail in Champassack Province.  Before they were taken to jail, the village chief forced the LEC members into a vehicle belonging to the jail and reportedly drove them around the village, warning other villagers not to follow the LEC faith.  One of the detainees said local authorities released them in part because MOHA organized a workshop on Decree 315 in the same province that week.  The detainees were released after the workshop ended.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that on November 18 three police officers in Keovilia village, Vilabouly District, Savannakhet Province, arrested three men and one elderly woman for being Christian.  The report identified the woman as “Grandma Bounlam” and the three men by the surnames Duangtha, Khampan, and Ponsawan.  The officers who made the arrests were identified by their surnames as Don, a police major stationed at Vilabouly District, and two officers stationed in Vang District, Pim and No.  According to HRWLRF, the police held the men in handcuffs and feet stocks.  Police released the four, but evicted them from their homes and confiscated their property.  According to HRWLRF, police threatened them with unspecified criminal charges if they did not renounce Christianity.

Radio Free Asia and HRWLRF reported that in December five other Christians were arrested in Non Soung Village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, including one pastor who had come from another village to help celebrate Christmas.  Radio Free Asia quoted an anonymous local who said that Christians were subject to restrictions and “are not allowed to teach from the Bible or to spread their religion to others because Christianity is the religion of the Europeans and Americans.”

According to Radio Free Asia, HRWLRF reported police in Nakanong village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, arrested three church leaders and four other Christians on December 29 for conducting an “illegal” church service and held them for several days before releasing them.  HRWLRF reportedly said authorities also demolished the church stage, cut the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized three mobile phones.

In some cases, church members reportedly were arrested for practicing their faith but charged with another crime.  In Houaphanh Province, three members of the LEC were arrested for traveling without proper documentation and were charged with illegally entering a forest.

According to Christian media outlet World Watch Monitor, in January local officials in Luang Prabang forced a Christian and his family to move to another part of the city and fined them the equivalent of $400.  According to a local source, the “family book” identification document of the family, necessary to move about freely, was kept by the local chief.  The family could not return to collect the book without incurring additional fines of up to $1200, the fine given to anyone who chooses to become a Christian in that area, according to the source.

Some local officials pressured Christians to renounce their faith or encouraged them to move elsewhere.  For example, in Huaython village in Luang Prabang Province, local officials told approximately 20 families belonging to the LEC to renounce their faith because they should not believe in a “foreign religion.”  One family renounced their religion and local authorities gave them approximately 50,000 Lao kip ($6) as a reward.  In Sone District in Houaphanh Province, district officials told nine families they would have to move to another province if they did not renounce their Christian faith.  Eight of the nine families opted to move to Bokeo Province.

A representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said village authorities in Khammouane Province forced Church members to sign a pledge, promising they would not gather for religious services.  According to the representative, the village authorities said that Church members could believe in a religion but could not gather to worship.

Leaders of the recognized minority religious groups said they were aware of fewer incidents of abuse of villagers who had converted to Christianity than in previous years; in most cases, those who were arrested were fined and released.  In some cases local officials reportedly threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with orders issued by the local authorities either to stop practicing their faith or not to join in community activities.

In discussing Decree 315 and other laws, religious leaders said officials in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, but conflicts and other incidents that restricted religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas.  MOHA and LFNC officials continued to acknowledge some local officials were incorrectly applying regulations, were creating their own regulations contrary to national law, or simply were unaware of all provisions in Decree 315.  A representative from the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs said that Decree 315 had “not reached all areas.”

Religious officials said that while Decree 315 helped delineate religious rights, the decree established requirements many religious groups felt were onerous, unrealistic, and used to restrict religious practices.  According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.

Religious groups said they were concerned the government had not yet implemented the decree fully in practice.  If the government attempted to enforce all aspects of the decree, one church official said, “We won’t be able to do anything.”  Baha’i representatives said the decree was a positive development and reflected the government’s “sincerity” to promote religious freedom.  They also said the decree was not overly restrictive, but needed more clarity.  They recommended the government devote more resources to implementing it at the district level.

A number of nonprofit associations (NPAs) and some religious groups called for the repeal of the Decree on Associations No. 238, which they said had the potential to restrict operations of nonprofit organizations.  While the decree pertains to NPAs, Voice of the Martyrs, an international Christian NGO, stated local Christians were concerned authorities could use the decree to shut down religious activity and religious expression.  Mission Network News said the decree threatened Christians’ right to meet.  There were no reports from other local religious groups the decree had been used to regulate religious activity.

Some minority religious groups, including the Catholic Church, LEC, Baha’i Faith, and Seventh-day Adventists, successfully met the annual administrative requirements outlined in Decree 315, such as providing information on the number of members, religious texts, and plans for services during the year.  Other groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, were still waiting for the government to approve their registration applications at year’s end.  A MOHA official stated the registration process was not easy and said that during the review process MOHA consulted with other religious groups to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups.  The MOHA official said some Christian groups questioned whether another group wishing to register was Christian.

The LEC, the second largest religious group after Buddhists, continued to serve as an umbrella group for all registered Christian denominations other than Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists, as religious leaders reported applications for recognition of new Christian groups were too difficult.  Several unregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, continued their efforts to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs; their applications remained pending at year’s end.

Although the law prohibits members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFNC from practicing their faith, members of several groups reportedly did so quietly without interference.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to obtaining travel permission.  Some religious officials were detained even with proper travel authorization; most cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.  An official with the Seventh-day Adventist Church said if a member of the Church needed to travel to another province, he or she must submit an application to MOHA in advance and needed approval at the national and provincial levels, and it could take up to 20 days to get approval.  An official at MOHA said it tried to approve travel plans within 10 days, and encouraged religious groups to submit annual travel plans.

In March an official with the Catholic Church in Vientiane said the LFNC reportedly gave his local church permission to hold a religious service on April 1 for Easter.  Local authorities, however, stopped a church official who was traveling on March 31 to participate in the service and told him he could only travel on April 1.

Religious leaders said the Christmas season presented challenges, especially involving detention of Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside of their normal locales.  Members of the LEC said they submitted travel plans for the Christmas season to all appropriate levels of government but did not receive all the required approvals.

According to Radio Free Asia, in December an LFNC official from Xiengkhouang Province said authorities allowed Christians to conduct Christmas services in their churches or at their pastors’ homes provided they did not preach against the government and law and they invited local officials to attend to guarantee “order and security.”  Radio Free Asia also reported that, according to a Christian in Vientiane, Christians conducted Christmas services in the capital with government authorities present for “security and protection.”

According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims continued to worship at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country.  According to the Muslim Association, its leaders met regularly with LFNC and MOHA officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government.  The government permitted individuals from Thailand to conduct Islamic lessons.

While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government continued to discourage animist practices it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.

Representatives of Baha’i communities in urban areas, including Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang, reported local authorities generally were “comfortable” with Baha’i practitioners and did not interfere with or restrict their activities.

Christian religious leaders said authorities continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing in public.  Some religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, said they relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.  Authorities continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship receive prior approval from local or higher officials.

The government strictly enforced a prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners.  Several religious groups said they welcomed foreign members to visit the country but needed to be cautious about the kinds of activities foreigners engaged in.  The Church of Jesus Christ had an agreement with MOHA that allowed two missionaries in the country but the missionaries were allowed only to teach English and could not engage in religious discussions.

Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials but several religious groups said they could find most religious texts and documents online so they did not need government permission.  MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure they were in line with the organization’s beliefs.

Several religious groups reported problems with building places of worship.  An official with the LEC said there were approximately 600 LEC churches throughout the country.  He said the LEC had more than 1,000 “unofficial” churches where worship services were conducted in homes, in part due to the difficulties of obtaining building permits from local authorities.  An official with the Catholic Church said it had encountered challenges building churches as well.  During the year, the Church asked for permission to build churches in several villages but only received vague responses.  The LFNC Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible.  Local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed a permit to worship at home, although Christian groups said local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal even with a permit.  Religious group representatives said the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MOHA permission.  Christian groups said the government would not issue permits to build new churches, and local officials used the process to block construction of new churches.  There were reports, however, of authorities permitting the construction of new churches, for example in the city of Vang Vieng and in Attapeu Province.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction, and generally received no response to requests.  Some religious leaders said that Decree 315 had neither clear guidelines nor clear timelines for construction of religious buildings.  A Christian religious official said the government used bureaucratic delays to halt construction as long as possible in order to keep minority religious groups from expanding.  According to the director general of the National Assembly’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Department, many of the delays involved legal matters concerning construction, or in some cases, a cluster of Christian families in a village wished to build two or three churches in their village, which would result in more churches than authorities believed necessary for the number of Christians.

At year’s end, the Catholic Church continued to discuss plans with the LFNC to reacquire land adjoining the Sacred Heart Cathedral in central Vientiane that the Church previously owned before the Communist Party came to power in 1975.  The Catholic Church has tried to reacquire the land since 2001.  In November 2017, the government announced plans to build a school on that land with funding from China and did not inform the Church of these plans.

According to MOES, there was no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools.  The government, however, promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture.  Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples and, in order to advance to the next grade level, educational authorities required all students pray in Buddhist temples.  Christian students reported discomfort with the requirement.  MOES said it allowed parents to remove their children from the classes if they were dissatisfied with the program.  In several provinces, however, lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level.  This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.  A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups existed throughout the country and accepted students from any religious denomination.

With advance permission and a requirement there be no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the second year in a row.  The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place November 2-4 at the Vientiane Center shopping mall, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands.  LEC officials said, however, the government told the organizers it would be the last time they received a permit to hold the festival.  The LEC officials also said that the word “gospel” was not translated into Lao and only appeared in English-language materials.

A Christian pastor said that in limited cases, provincial government officials continued to ask religious leaders not to report grievances to foreigners to avoid unwanted publicity.  He added the LEC did not want to embarrass the government or jeopardize its relatively strong relationship so the Church often chose not to publicize incidents related to religious freedom.  One religious official said the government blamed religious groups for publicizing grievances and giving the country a bad reputation.  According to religious groups, in some instances local authorities continued efforts to keep individuals who had been arrested, banished, punished, marginalized, or had otherwise been the victim of abuses due to their religious beliefs out of sight of international observers.

An official with the Catholic Church said government officials who are Catholic were promoted at a slower rate than their Buddhist counterparts and needed to take precautions to not be seen attending church services.  Other religious groups noted it was hard for their members to join the government or advance to higher-level positions, or to become village chiefs.  Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or non-animist government officials in higher-level posts at the provincial or national levels, although a Baha’i official said there were three Baha’i village chiefs.

Religious officials said that during the year, a man with mental health issues caused disruptions in a village.  Local authorities blamed minority religious groups for the disruptions, claiming the man was a member of both the LEC and the Seventh-day Adventists, even though he was not a registered member of either church.  Other religious officials said local authorities at times used religion as a scapegoat for domestic violence or other issues within a family.

In dealing with local conflicts regarding religious problems, officials at MOHA reported they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved.  One MOHA official said the ministry did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

The LFNC and MOHA stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law.  LFNC and MOHA officials said they frequently traveled out of the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations.  They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion.  During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFNC and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local officials and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam.  With support from an international NGO, MOHA held seven workshops in six different provinces during the year with nearly 400 officials in attendance, including a four-day workshop on religious freedom in Bolikhamxai Province in October.  The LFNC offered seven workshops in four provinces with more than 250 participants.  The government directly funded one workshop, and religious groups contributed some funding for the workshops.  Officials said the workshops provided a forum for MOHA and LFNC to explain the different aspects of Decree 315 and hear about the challenges that minority religious groups encounter under it and other provisions of the law.

In collaboration with the LFNC, an international NGO continued to conduct training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders throughout the year.  The training was designed to help the officials and religious leaders understand the law and each other better.

In October the National Assembly organized a three-day workshop that included officials from the four recognized religions and assembly members from all 18 provinces.  The religious organizations presented their beliefs, administration, and contributions to the country, while MOHA and MOPS discussed aspects of the new decree.  Assembly members also had the opportunity to ask questions of the religious officials.

The officially recognized religious groups and the government continued to print and distribute the decree and its implementation guidelines.

The Church of Jesus Christ organized study tours to Utah for government officials.  These and similar trips required approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Christian sources reported religious tensions occurred in villages and rural areas, particularly in response to the growth of Christian congregations or disagreements over access to village resources.  One religious official said persons living in villages were often unaware of Decree 315 and village leaders did not encourage religious freedom.  The LEC noted continued conflicts in the southern part of the country where church officials said local residents continued to see their church as an unwelcome “foreign religion.”  Some religious leaders said misunderstandings continued to occur, which they said were due to low education levels in remote parts of the country.  In some cases, villagers threatened to expel Christians from the village if they did not renounce their faith, or offered them payment to renounce their religion.  In many villages, disputes of all kinds (including religious disputes) resolved by a committee without getting police or other government officials involved.  Christian group leaders said this process often resulted in compromises, such as encouraging Christians to support local Buddhist or animist ceremonies without participating in them.

Christians said burial practices remained an issue throughout the year.  Some animists continued to be concerned about the Christian practice of burying their dead within the village boundary or nearby confines, believing that the deceased’s spirit would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits because the body was not cremated.  In some rural areas, Christians said they were not allowed to use public cemeteries and were not given land for separate cemeteries, so they had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards.

According to an official from a Christian church, conflicts between animists and Christians continued, with reports of family feuds that resulted in damaged or destroyed animist relics.  Older animists said they opposed their younger family members adopting non-animist beliefs and threatened them via various means, including government intervention.

Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from religious groups abroad of various denominations.  Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which continued to play a traditional schooling role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable.  Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults.  Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youth.  Baha’i groups conducted religious training for children and adult members.  The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Khammouane Province for students with high school diplomas.  The Muslim community offered limited educational training.

Some members of ethnic groups associated with the United States during the Vietnam War era said they felt abandoned by the United States and had rejected Christianity, which they viewed as an American religion, and in many cases in subsequent years had returned to their animist roots.  This sentiment reportedly continued to cause problems in remote areas where these ethnic communities placed additional pressure on Christians to renounce their religion, including from their own families and neighbors.

Several religious groups noted they provided donations after a dam collapsed in Attapeu Province in July, resulting in severe flooding and the displacement of residents.

Lebanon

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 6.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations estimate the total population includes approximately 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for nearly 70 years.

Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 61.1 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (30.6 percent Sunni, 30.5 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis).  Statistics Lebanon estimates that 33.7 percent of the population is Christian.  Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox.  Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox (Gregorians), Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites), Syriac Catholics, Assyrians (Nestorians), Chaldeans, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Latin (Roman) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to Statistics Lebanon, 5.2 percent of the population is Druze and is concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut.  There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus.  The Jewish Community Council, which represents the Lebanese Jewish community, estimates that approximately 100 Jews remain in the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are approximately 1.3 million refugees from Syria in the country, mainly Sunni Muslims, but also including Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze.  UNRWA estimates that there are between 250,000 and 280,000 Palestinians still living in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas.  Comprised of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s, including their descendants, they are largely Sunni Muslims but also include Christians.

UNHCR estimates there are just under 30,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.  Refugees and foreign migrants also include largely Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims and Chaldeans from Iraq, and Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan.  According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, an NGO that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 10,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group.  The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.

By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change.  The newly joined religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, and allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s Personal Status Directorate.  The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.

Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed.  Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials.

The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.”  It does not provide a definition of what this entails.

The penal code also criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion, and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years.

By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition.  To do so, it must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accord with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution.  Alternatively, an unrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by applying to a recognized religious group.  In doing so, the unrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group, but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies.  This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.

There are 18 officially recognized religious groups.  These include four Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, Evangelical, and Latin Catholic), Druze, and Jews.  Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, and several Protestant groups.

Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government sanction.  Official recognition also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters.  By law, the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.  Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law.

Religious groups perform all marriages and divorces; there are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce.  The government recognizes civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage.  While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts will often require the non-belonging partner to pledge to raise their children in the religion of their partner and/or to give up certain rights such as inheritance or custody claims in the case of divorce.

Nonrecognized religious groups may own property and may assemble for worship and perform their religious rites freely.  They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues.  Given agreements in the country’s confessional system that designate percentages of senior government positions, and in some cases specific positions, for the recognized religious confessions, members of unrecognized groups do not have any opportunity to occupy certain government positions, including cabinet, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.

The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations, and representing those churches to the government.

The law allows censorship of religious publications under a number of conditions, including if the government deems the material incites sectarian discord or threatens national security.

According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may have their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security.  Approximately 70 percent of students attend private schools, which despite many having ties to confessional groups, are often open to children of other religious groups as well.  The Ministry of Education does not require or encourage religious education in public schools, but it is permitted, and both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.

The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general.  It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the recognized religious groups.  This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country), and also applies to the civil service, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government.  Parliament is elected on the basis of “equality between Christians and Muslims.”  Druze and Alawites are included in this allocation with the Muslim communities.

The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding agreement.  According to the pact, the president shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the prime minister shall be a Sunni Muslim.

The Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates equal Muslim and Christian representation in parliament, but makes changes to the powers of the Maronite Christian presidency, including subjecting the designations of the prime minister and other cabinet ministers to consultations with parliament.  In addition, the agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces.  Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the Internal Security Forces and Directorate of General Security are Sunni and Shia, respectively.  Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well.  While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and could provoke a political crisis if an acceptable swap or accommodation were not mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.  The Taef Agreement mandates a cabinet with seats allocated equally between Muslims (to include Druze and Alawites) and Christians.  The Taef Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation between members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession.

In June 2017 parliament approved a new electoral law replacing the country’s winner-take-all system for parliamentary elections with a proportional vote.  The law does not affect the Christian-Muslim proportionality of parliament.

By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql.  The government council of ministers must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the Druze sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries.  The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges.  By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.

The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; in order to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month.  Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel.  If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.  On July 19, the Internal Security Force’s cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts generated public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint.  The judge in the case ordered Khoury to sign a pledge to abstain from his Facebook account for one month and not to criticize religions.  On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for a Facebook post that reportedly insulted the Virgin Mary.  In September government censors banned the screening of the U.S. film The Nun for insulting Christianity.  For the third year in a row, there was no judicial action on the lawsuit filed in 2015 by Member of Parliament Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian for “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he made about Christianity.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in April that, since 2016, some municipal governments engaged in forcibly evicting Syrian refugees from their homes and expelling them from their localities to other locations in Lebanon.  The HRW report stated that religious affiliation was among several reasons for the evictions.  Most of those interviewed by HRW said that their eviction was due, in part, to their religious identity.  According to UNHCR, the municipalities identified as being involved in forcibly evicting and expelling Syrian refugees were predominantly Christian.  Monthly community tension reports prepared jointly by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and UNHCR along with NGO and implementing partners using population survey data from UNDP, however, did not identify religious discrimination as the key driver of tension between refugees and host communities.  NGOs and international organizations, including the UNDP, UNHCR, and other UN agencies, also reported that perceptions of competition for jobs, resources, and land were the predominant factors driving refugee evictions, along with security concerns and Lebanon’s history with Syria.

Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records in order to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.  Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions.

The government again failed to take action to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israeli Communal Council (the group’s current officially recognized name).  Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites, as customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script given the ban on trade of Israeli goods.

Following the May 6 parliamentary elections, non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticism that the government made little progress toward the Taef Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.”  Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, said the fact that the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament, constituted government discrimination.  The Syriac League continued to call for more representation for non-Maronite and non-Greek Orthodox Christians in cabinet positions, parliament, and high-level civil service positions, typically held by members of the larger Christian religious groups.

Members of all confessions serve in all military, intelligence, and security services, including in high-ranking positions.

During his September 26 remarks to the UN General Assembly in New York, President Michel Aoun repeated his call to make Lebanon a regional hub for religious dialogue.  During the July 24-26 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil reiterated the government’s commitment to religious freedom and pluralism, stating that religious diversity strengthened the country.

During the year, there was no movement on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the Ministry of Interior since 2013.  The cases remained unresolved, with no evidence of forthcoming action.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 25, a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man in the northern town of Minieh.  Media reported that the dispute began when the sheikh accused the man of making a blasphemous remark in a market, after which the sheikh and his two brothers followed the man outside where they attacked and killed him with knives and cleavers.  Police arrested the men involved and their case was ongoing at year’s end.  Human rights NGOs and activists criticized the lack of an immediate condemnation by the grand mufti or other high-level Sunni or government authorities.

The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Sidon, including the destruction and desecration of gravesites.  Authorities granted the Jewish Community Council a permit to restore the Sidon cemetery following the acts of vandalism.  The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and was unresolved by year’s end.  The council made little progress with the municipality of Beirut regarding construction debris and other garbage dumped in the Beirut Jewish cemetery.

Religious leaders stated that relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable.  On August 28, Christian and Muslim religious leaders met with the Swiss president at the summer residence of Maronite Patriarch Rai and appealed to the international community to work toward protecting peace in the region and the dignity of refugees.  During the meeting, Rai said “this presence of high Muslim and Christian dignitaries clearly reflects the uniqueness of Lebanon as a country of convergence and interfaith dialogue.”

Christian and Muslim religious leaders from the major denominations continued to participate in interfaith dialogues throughout the year and to call for unity against extremism.  At a February 26 conference in Vienna, the highest leaders of some of the country’s major religious communities, including Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, Grand Mufti of the Republic Abdel Latif Deryan, and Armenian Orthodox Catholicos Aram I Keshishian, joined 23 high-ranking Arab Muslim and Christian authorities to commit to work together to rebuild and protect their communities from the effects of religiously motivated violent extremist rhetoric and actions.  The group launched the first interreligious platform to advocate for the rights and inclusion of all communities in the Arab world, combat ideologies instigating hatred and sectarianism, and jointly address the challenges their communities face.

A survey by the Adyan Foundation found that nearly 70 percent of first-time voters among all religious groups between 21 and 28 years old identified “being open to all people of different beliefs and fraternizing with them in order to live their values and promote the common good” as the most important daily embodiment of their faith.

Mongolia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  In the 2010 census, 53 percent of individuals ages 15 and above self-identified as Buddhist, 3 percent as Muslim, 2.9 percent as Shamanist, and 2.1 percent as Christian.  Another 38.6 percent stated they had no religious identity.  According to the president’s advisor on cultural and religious policy, the majority of Buddhists are Mahayana Buddhists.  Many individuals practice elements of Shamanism in combination with other religions, particularly Buddhism.  The majority of Christians are Protestant; other Christian groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Russian Orthodox Church.  Other religious groups such as the Baha’i Faith and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) also have a presence.

The ethnic Kazakh community, located primarily in the northwest, is majority Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution lists “freedom of conscience and religion” among the enumerated rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, prohibits the state from engaging in religious activity, and prohibits religious institutions from pursuing political activities.  The constitution specifies, “The relationship between the State and religious institutions shall be regulated by law.”  The constitution provides that, in exercising their rights, persons “shall not infringe on the national security, rights, and freedoms of others and violate public order.”  The constitution says the state shall respect all religions, and religions shall honor the state.  The religion law provides “the State shall respect the dominant position of Buddhism” in the country “in order to respect and uphold the traditions of the unity and civilization of the people.”  It furthers says, “This shall not prevent citizens from following other religions.”

In accordance with the criminal code, if an individual is found to have used or threatened the use of force to hinder the activities or rituals of religious organizations, the individual is subject to a fine, ranging from 450,000 to 2.7 million tugriks ($170 to $1,000), a community-service obligation of 240-720 hours, or a travel ban ranging from one to six months.  If a religious organization or religious representative, such as a priest, minister, imam, monk, or shaman, is found to have committed acts of proselytization through force, pressure, or deception, or was found to have spread “cruel” religious ideology, the law allows for fines ranging from 450,000 to 5.4 million tugriks ($170 to $2,000) or a travel ban ranging from six to 12 months, or six to 12 months’ imprisonment.

The law on petty offenses contains fines of 100,000 tugriks ($38) for individuals and one million tugriks ($380) for legal entities for recruiting children to religion against their will.  The law contains a fine of 100,000 tugriks ($38) for individuals and one million tugriks ($380) for any legal entity for disclosing an individual’s religion on identity documents without that person’s consent or interfering with the internal affairs of a religious organization unless otherwise allowed by law.  The law also contains a fine of 150,000 tugriks ($57) for individuals and 1.5 million tugriks ($570) for legal religious entities for conducting government or political activity or financing any such activity.  A fine of 300,000 tugriks ($110) for individuals and three million tugriks ($1,100) for legal entities for organizing religious training or gatherings at public premises, including schools, is specified in the law.

The religion law forbids the spread of religious views by “force, pressure, material incentives, deception, or means that harm health or morals or are psychologically damaging.”  It also prohibits the use of gifts for religious recruitment.  The law on children’s rights provides children the freedom to practice their faith.

The law prohibits religious groups from undertaking activities that “are inhumane or dangerous to the tradition and culture of the people of Mongolia.”

Religious groups must register with local and provincial authorities, as well as with the General Authority for State Registration (General Authority), to function legally.  National law provides little detail on registration procedures and does not stipulate the duration of registration, allowing local and provincial authorities to set their own rules.  Religious groups must renew their registrations (in most cases annually) with multiple government institutions across local, provincial, and national levels.

A religious group must provide the following documentation to the relevant local provincial or municipal representative assembly when applying for registration:  a letter requesting registration, a letter from the lower level local authority granting approval to conduct religious services, a brief description of the group, the group’s charter, documentation on the group’s founding, a list of leaders, financial information, a declaration of assets (including any real estate owned), a lease or rental agreement (if applicable), brief biographic information on individuals wishing to conduct religious services, and the expected number of worshippers.  A religious group must provide to the General Authority its approved registration application to receive a certificate for operation.

The renewal process requires a religious group to obtain a reference letter from the lower-level local authority to be submitted with the documents listed above (updated as necessary), to the local provincial or municipal representative assembly.  The relevant provincial or municipal representative assembly issues a resolution granting the religious institution permission to continue operations, and the organization sends a copy of the approved registration renewal to the General Authority, which enters the new validity dates on the religious institution’s certificate for operation.

Public and private educational institutions are entitled to state funding for their secular curricula but are prohibited from using state funding for nonsecular curricula.  The education law prohibits all educational institutions from conducting any religious training, rituals, or activities with state-provided funding.  A provincial or municipal representative assembly may deny registration renewals for religious groups that violate the ban on using state funding for the provision of religious instruction in educational institutions.

The law regulating civil and military service specifies that all male citizens between ages 18 and 25 must complete one year of compulsory military service.  The law provides for alternatives to military service for citizens who submit an objection based on ethical or religious grounds.  Alternative service with the Border Forces, the National Emergency Management Agency, or a humanitarian organization is available to all who submit an ethical or religious objection.  There is also a provision for, in lieu of service, paying the cost of one year’s training and upkeep for a soldier.

Under the labor law, all foreign organizations, including religious institutions, must hire a stipulated number of Mongolian citizens for every foreign employee hired.  Groups not specified in the annual quota list (including most religious groups) must ensure 95 percent of employees are Mongolian citizens.  Any unlisted group with fewer than 20 Mongolian national employees may employ one foreign worker.

The law regulating the legal status of foreign citizens prohibits foreigners from advertising, promoting, or practicing “cruel” religions that could damage the national culture.  There were no reports of any individual or organization being penalized for violating this prohibition.  The religion law includes a similar prohibition on religious institutions, both foreign and domestic, conducting “inhumane” or culturally damaging activities within the country.

Foreigners seeking to conduct religious activities must obtain religious visas and are prohibited from proselytizing, promoting, and practicing religion that violates national culture and law.  Only registered religious groups may sponsor foreigners for religious visas.  Foreigners who enter on other classes of visas are not allowed to undertake activities that advertise or promote any religion (as distinct from personal worship or other individual religious activity, which is permitted).  Under the law, “engag[ing] in business other than one’s purpose for coming” constitutes ground for deportation.

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

Government Practices

Registration and renewal procedures for religious institutions reportedly varied significantly across the country, largely depending upon the practices of local government officials.  Some religious groups continued to say the government inconsistently applied and interpreted regulations, changing procedures frequently and without notice.  Some religious groups continued to state that the registration and renewal process was arbitrary in some instances, with no appeal mechanism for denials.

Some groups said they were deterred from registering because of the length of the registration process, which varied from several weeks to years, an inability to fulfill requirements due to a lack of dedicated, regular worship sites, and changing government personnel.

Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials continued to say the registration and renewal process allowed the government to assess the activities of religious groups, monitor the number of places of worship and clergy, and know the ratio of foreigners to nationals conducting religious activities.  After a religious organization filed for new registration or renewal, according to Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials, a specialized team visited the applying organization to conduct an inspection to determine whether it met specific registration requirements for religious legal entities.  This inspection team was composed of individuals from relevant agencies, such as the National Police Agency, General Intelligence Agency, and General Agency for Specialized Inspection.  The officials continued to say any applications for initial registration or renewal that ostensibly were “denied” were more accurately “postponed” because of incomplete documentation, poor physical conditions of the place of worship, instances of providing English language instruction in schools without an educational permit, or financial issues (e.g., failure to pay property tax or to declare financing from foreign sources).  The authorities said in these cases, they instructed religious institutions to correct deficiencies and resubmit their applications.

A Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs’ 2016 inspection found there were 848 religious organizations nationwide (54.2 percent Christian, 34.6 percent Buddhist, 5.1 percent Muslim, and 6 percent other religion), of which 352 were operating without official registration.  According to Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials, there were 306 officially registered religious institutions in Ulaanbaatar as of October 2018.

The Ulaanbaatar Assembly limited registrations and renewals to one year from the date of issuance, although some provincial representative assemblies granted registrations and renewals that were valid for two or three years.  An Ulaanbaatar Assembly official said Christian groups constituted the majority of those seeking registrations or renewals; for this reason, most of the cancelled or suspended registrations were for Christian groups.  A Christian group reported that an Ulaanbaatar Assembly official stated its registration application was refused based on the large number of Christian organizations already registered.

The Ulaanbaatar Assembly and other provincial representative assemblies continued to decline to recognize branch churches as affiliated with a single religious institution; instead, each individual church was required to register separately.  According to Christian leaders from various denominations, the requirement that branches of the same church required separate registrations, which had unclear status in the law, continued to cause particular problems for religious groups seeking to operate multiple churches under a centralized administration, although such denominations were able to register their churches individually.

Unregistered religious groups were often still able to function, although at times they experienced frequent visits by local tax officers, police, and representatives from other agencies.  Some religious leaders expressed concern that unregistered status could leave their organizations vulnerable to investigation and possible legal action.  Shamanist leaders expressed concerns that the requirement for a registered place of worship placed limitations on their religion because of its nature-linked practices.  Unlike in previous years, there were no reports from Christian groups that this requirement restricted their ability to hold worship services in members’ households.  Unregistered churches lacked official documents establishing themselves as legal entities and as a result were unable to own or lease land, file tax returns, or formally interact with the government.  Individual members of unregistered churches typically continued to own or lease property for church use in their personal capacity.

There was a report that a Christian organization experienced registration difficulties in Ulaanbaatar that Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials stated were due to the pending implementation of updated local regulations.  A different Christian organization reported registration and renewal application processing delays, for unknown reasons, in Tuv, Khentii, and Bayan-Olgii Provinces.  Unregistered Christian religious organizations, however, were able to operate.

In June the Ulaanbaatar Assembly implemented a 2017 Ulaanbaatar Administrative Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and renewed its registration.  The congregation had filed a court petition contesting the Ulaanbaatar Assembly’s 2017 decision to cancel its registration based on the assembly’s determination that the church’s doctrine was potentially harmful to national security.  The registration for the Evangelizers of Good News of Holy Scriptures – the legal entity used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nalaikh District – remained pending with the Ulaanbaatar Assembly at year’s end.  The delay occurred despite a ruling from the same court that the Ulaanbaatar Assembly failed to provide any evidence that the congregation in Nalaikh District posed a potential threat to national security.

A new draft law on religion was under review at year’s end.  According to its concept note, the stated intent of the draft law was to improve the monitoring, registration, renewal systems, and accountability mechanisms of religious institutions.  In October the government held a public discussion of the draft law and allowed for the submission of comments on the draft law during a public submission period.  During the public discussion, religious groups expressed concern over the composition of the new law’s proposed Religious Council, which would oversee a national registration process.

During an interfaith roundtable in October, Buddhist, Christian, Shamanist, and Muslim religious leaders reported that inconsistent implementation of registration requirements and difficulties obtaining religious visas posed barriers to the free exercise of religious practices.

There were reports that local authorities continued to restrict unaccompanied minors’ participation in Christian religious services due to fears of “brainwashing.”  Children under the age of 16 required written parental permission to participate in church activities.  Churches are required to retain this permission in church records and make it available upon request.

As allowed by law, religious groups continued to experience periodic audits, usually by officers from tax, immigration, local government, intelligence, and other agencies.  During an interfaith roundtable, Buddhist, Christian, Shamanist, and Muslim religious leaders said such audits typically took place once in a two-year period, but some inspection visits reportedly followed routine submissions of registration renewal applications.  Secular business entities have also been subject to similar inspections and experience periodic audits.  Some religious leaders said such periodic audits were a form of harassment.

Government officials continued to receive Buddhist leaders during Lunar New Year celebrations.

Some foreign citizens continued to face difficulties obtaining religious visas.  Since most religious groups were bound by the requirement for 95 percent of staff to be local hires, groups that could not afford to hire enough local employees could not sponsor additional religious visas.  Christian groups reported foreign missionaries seeking to enter the country often did nonreligious work and applied for the corresponding type of visa (such as student or business).  As a result, the groups reported they could legally participate only in limited religious activities and were vulnerable to deportation because of inconsistent interpretations of the activities in which they could legally engage.  The validity of religious visas remained linked to the religious organization’s registration, which some Christian religious groups reported resulted in additional visa problems.  Foreign citizens could not receive or renew a religious visa unless their religious organization’s registration or renewal was already granted.  The length of the religious visa’s validity corresponded with and could not exceed the registration validity of its sponsoring organization.

The government continued to allocate funding for the restoration of several Buddhist sites that it stated were important religious, historical, and cultural centers.  The government did not provide similar subsidies to other religious groups.

The president’s advisor on cultural and religious policy stated in an October press interview that some foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations conducted religious activities in violation of the law.  She also expressed concern that some churches illegally distributed cash and food as incentives for membership and targeted children to join congregations.

The foreign minister appointed the country’s first ambassador-at-large for religious freedom issues following his attendance at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of harassment of individual Christians and members of other minority religious groups socially or on social media.  For example, a Christian church reported that a Facebook posting of baptism photographs received many negative comments.  During an interfaith youth discussion in January, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim teacher said her employer requested that she remove her head covering while at work.  During the same event, a Catholic university student said her fellow students discriminated against her for believing in a “foreign” religion.

According to some religious leaders, overall public support for religious freedom increased.  For example, representatives of a minority religious group said that employers sometimes recruited its members, who were widely seen as “honest and ethical” based on religious affiliation.  Some Christians, however, reported that a negative perception among the public about the growing influence of Christianity continued.

In July Asianews.it reported an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to influence Buddhists in Mongolia, including through involvement in choosing a successor to Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, the spiritual head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, and exploiting divisions between two monasteries in Ulaanbaatar.  A high-level Buddhist source disagreed with the article’s assessment regarding Chinese attempts to influence Buddhists in Mongolia.

Montenegro

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 614,000 (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, approximately 72 percent of the population is Orthodox, either SOC or MOC.  Local media estimate the SOC accounts for 70 percent of the Orthodox population, while the MOC makes up the remaining 30 percent.  The census reports 19.1 percent of the population is Muslim, 3.4 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.2 percent atheist.  Additionally, 2.6 percent of respondents did not provide a response, and several other groups, including Seventh-day Adventists (registered locally as the Christian Adventist Church), Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other Christians, and agnostics, together account for less than 1 percent of the population.  According to press estimates, the Jewish community numbers approximately 350.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion:  ethnic Montenegrins and ethnic Serbs are generally associated with the MOC and the SOC, respectively, ethnic Albanians with Islam or Catholicism, and ethnic Croats with the Catholic Church.  Many Bosniaks (ethnic Bosnians who are Muslim) and other Muslims live along the eastern and northern borders with Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion.  It guarantees the freedom of all individuals to express their religion in public and private, alone or collectively, through prayer, preaching, custom, or rites, and states individuals shall not be obliged to declare their religious beliefs.  The constitution states the freedom to express religious beliefs may be restricted only if required to protect the life and health of the public, peace and order, or other rights guaranteed by the constitution.  It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities in religious activities and affairs.  The constitution permits courts to prevent propagation of religious hatred or discrimination and prohibits organizations from instigating religious hatred and intolerance.

By law, it is a crime to cause and spread religious hatred, which includes publication of information inciting hatred or violence against persons on the basis of religion, the mockery of religious symbols, or the desecration of monuments, memorial tablets, or tombs.  Violators may receive prison sentences ranging from six months to 10 years.  If the violation is committed through the misuse of an official position or authority or leads to violence, or if the courts determine the consequences are detrimental to the coexistence of people, national minorities, or ethnic groups, the prison sentence ranges from two to 10 years.

The criminal code prescribes a fine between 200 euros ($230) and 16,000 euros ($18,300) or up to two years’ imprisonment for restricting an individual’s freedom to exercise a religious belief or membership in a religious group or for preventing or obstructing the performance of religious rites.  The code also provides for a fine of between 600 euros ($690) and 8,000 euros ($9,200) or a maximum of one year in prison for coercing another person to declare his or her religious beliefs.  Any government official found guilty of these crimes may receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.

The law provides for the recognition of religious groups through registration with local and federal authorities; religious groups that existed before 1977 are not obligated to register in order to obtain recognition.  New religious groups must register with local police within 15 days of their establishment to receive the status of a legal entity, although there is no penalty specified for failing to do so.  The police must then file this registration with the MOI, which maintains a list of all religious organizations in the country.  To register, a religious group must provide its name and organizing documents, the names of its officials, the address of the group’s headquarters, and the location(s) where religious services will be performed.  Registration entitles groups to own property, hold bank accounts in their own name, and receive a tax exemption for donations and sales of goods or services directly related to their religious activities; however, lack of registration or recognition does not affect a group’s ability to conduct religious activities.  An unregistered religious community may register as another type of organization in order to open a bank account, but may not receive the tax exemptions granted to registered religious groups.

There are 21 recognized religious groups in the country:  the SOC, MOC, Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM), Roman Catholic Church, Church of Christ’s Gospel, Catholic Mission Tuzi, Christian Adventist Church, Evangelistic Church, Army Order of Hospitable Believers of Saint Lazar of Jerusalem for Montenegro, Franciscan Mission for Malesija, Biblical Christian Community, Baha’i Faith, Montenegrin Community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Montenegrin Catholic Church, Montenegrin Protestant Church, Montenegrin Demochristian Church, and Montenegrin Adventist Church, as well as the Buddhist and Jewish communities.  All these groups are registered, except for the SOC, which has not applied to register, as it existed before 1977.

The government has agreements with the ICM, the Jewish communities, and the Holy See further defining the legal status of their respective groups and regulating their relationship with the state.  In the agreement with the Holy See, the government recognizes Catholic canon law as the Church’s legal framework and outlines the Church’s property rights.  The agreements with the ICM and Jewish communities have similar provisions.  The agreements establish commissions between each of the three religious communities and the government.  There are no similar agreements with the SOC, MOC, or the other recognized religious groups.

The Directorate for Relations with Religious Communities within the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights (MHMR) regulates relations between state agencies and religious groups, and is charged with protecting the free exercise of religion and advancing interfaith cooperation and understanding.  The MHMR provides some funds to religious communities and is in charge of communication between the government and the religious communities.  The ministry is also in charge of drafting new legislation defining the status and rights of religious organizations.

The law allows all religious groups, including unrecognized ones, to conduct religious services and rites in churches, shrines, and other premises designated by local governments, but requires approval from municipal police for such activities at any other public locations.

The law forbids “the abuse of religious communities or their religious sites for political purposes.”

The law provides prisoners the right to engage in religious practice and have contact with clergy.  Prisoners may request a diet conforming to their religious customs.

The constitution recognizes the right of members of minority national communities, individually or collectively, to exercise, protect, develop, and express “religious particularities” (i.e., religious customs unique to their minority community); to establish religious associations with the support of the state; and to establish and maintain contacts with persons and organizations outside the country who share the same religious beliefs.

By law, religion may not be taught in public primary or secondary schools.  The Islamic Community operates one private madrassah at the secondary school level, and the SOC operates one secondary school, both of which follow the state curriculum in nonreligious matters.

The law prohibits discrimination, including on religious grounds.  Offenses are punishable by a prison term of six months to five years.  The Office of the Protector of Human Rights (ombudsman) is responsible for combating discrimination and human rights violations, including those against religious freedom, by government agencies.  It may investigate complaints of religious discrimination and, if it finds a violation, may request remedial measures.  Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($570 to $2,900).  Generally, government agencies implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays.  If necessary, the courts may enforce the recommendations.

The constitution exempts conscientious objectors, including those objecting for religious reasons, from military service.  Alternative service is not required.

The constitution states foreign nationals fearing persecution in their home countries on the grounds of religion have the right to request asylum.

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

Government Practices

On August 19, for the ninth year in a row, police banned members of both the MOC and SOC from celebrating the transfiguration of Christ at the Church of Christ the Transfiguration at Ivanova Korita, citing concerns over potential clashes.  The SOC controls the site, which is near the seat of the MOC in the historical capital of Cetinje.  The MOC said the ban constituted a violation of members’ basic human rights and requested state authorities allow MOC priests to practice in SOC-controlled Orthodox churches and monasteries.  The SOC stated that by preventing the services from taking place in the church, police were attacking the centuries-old canonical order and church property rights, and were toying with the deepest feelings of Orthodox believers.

Religious groups, especially the SOC, continued to say the law regulating their legal status was outdated and inadequate, particularly in regards to property, as it was drafted during the time of the former Yugoslavia.  For the third consecutive year, the government said it was revising a draft of a new law on religious communities.  By year’s end, the government had not completed the draft.

Representatives of ethnic Albanian parties strongly criticized national authorities for failing to remove an SOC church on Mount Rumija, near Bar, a site revered by local Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.  The critics said the government’s inaction undermined multiethnic and religious harmony in the region.  Prime Minister Dusko Markovic stated the construction of the church was illegal, as it lacked the necessary permits, and that it would have to be removed.  Minister of Human and Minority rights Mehmed Zenka said the government would have a proper response to the SOC’s “provocation,” adding the placing of the church on top of Mount Rumija had a “negative effect” on the Albanian Muslim and Catholic populations.  In an open letter to Prime Minister Markovic, Metropolitan Amfilohije of the SOC said “the destruction of the church would be equal to a crime,” while another SOC bishop said he had never before seen such hatred against Serbs in Montenegro.  The statements came after Metropolitan Amfilohije reportedly blessed a new reinforcement of the church’s exterior in October.  In 2005, prior to Montenegro’s independence, helicopters from the Army of Serbia and Montenegro airlifted the metal church to the top of the mountain without permission from local authorities.

There was no change in the SOC position that it need not seek registration because the controlling 1977 law grandfathered in all religious groups active within the borders of present-day Montenegro in 1977 and that reregistration could have negative repercussions for the status of the Church.

The SOC said the MOI denied visas to its clergy based on discriminatory procedures that require work documentation from a registered employer, although the SOC is not legally required to register and is fully recognized.  The SOC said the MOI refused visas to 21 priests and nuns in August, September, and October.  The SOC also said the Ministry of Education refused to introduce religious education into schools as an optional subject and wanted the law changed to allow for such an option.

The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use to maintain religious shrines, for education or cultural projects, or to pay for social and medical insurance for clergy.  Both registered and unregistered religious communities remained eligible to apply for this funding.  For the first 10 months of the year, the MOC received 45,878 euros ($52,600), the ICM 38,765 euros ($44,500), the SOC 32,130 euros ($36,800), the Jewish community 17,500 euros ($20,100), and the Catholic Church 28,442 euros ($32,600).  Recognized religious communities also continued to receive in-kind assistance, such as property on which to build houses of worship, from other government ministries and from local governments.

The government continued its policy of not providing restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav communist government.  Government officials said the draft law on religious communities would address restitution issues.  Although the law remained highly contested, there were reports it would be passed in early 2019, but the contents were not available by the end of the year.

Delays with building permits stalled the building of a new synagogue in Podgorica, which the Jewish community started in December 2017.  The community said the delay was the result of bureaucracy rather than discrimination.  Government officials publicly supported the construction on a number of occasions.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Disputes over the ownership of 750 Orthodox sites, most of which are held by the SOC, continued between the SOC and MOC.  Both sides wanted the government and draft law on religion to address the issue favorably for them.  Each group continued to state it was the “true” Orthodox Church in the country.  Both groups celebrated Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter at separate locations, and police continued to provide protection around each group’s churches for events celebrated by both groups.  On January 6, SOC and MOC priests and followers again organized parallel, traditional Yule log lightings for Orthodox Christmas Eve:  the SOC in Podgorica and the MOC in Cetinje.  According to media, the events were peaceful.

Morocco

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.3 million (July 2018 estimate) and more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim.  Less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates.  Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca.  Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens.  Moroccan Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north.  In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600.  Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and several thousand Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked there for generations but do not hold Moroccan citizenship.  There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier.  There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca.  Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, with full sovereignty, and Islam is the religion of the state.  The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his religious affairs.  The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society.  According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches.  Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($21,000).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith, and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense.  Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law.  The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause on occasion to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate five percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country.  A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters.  Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts.  Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of the relevant aspects of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups.  According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam.  Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children.  Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some foreign Christian churches).  The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group or to hold public gatherings.  Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters in order to conduct financial transactions, hold bank accounts, rent property, and address the government in the name of the group.  An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government.  The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters.  The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution.  The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches are registered as associations.  The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status.  The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively.  The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence.  Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of teaching Sunni Islam or of not including religious instruction within the school’s curriculum.  Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation.  If the king or parliament decline to ratify a decision of the Ulema, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

The government at times reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  In May and June human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two Christian converts the necessary documentation to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  The couple hosted a small symbolic wedding ceremony in a human rights organization’s headquarters in Rabat in June, but the couple stated they feared being accused of fornication, which is punishable under the penal code, because they did not have a government-issued marriage certificate.  According to activists and members of the religious minority community, authorities also detained and questioned several Shia Muslims for hours about their religious beliefs and about members of their religious community.  According to activists, during these instances, police did not document the detention and, according to media reports, denied such events transpired.

According to press reports, a group called the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the CNDH on April 3 to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize a series of rights for Christian citizens including freedom of worship, celebration of civil marriages, establishment and operation of cemeteries, being able to use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school, as well as the legal normalization of Christian churches.  CNDH informed the group that CNDH welcomed official complaints where violations of human rights occurred.  CNDH was not aware of a government response to the petition.

Press also reported that on November 22, the Court of Appeals in Taza upheld a Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a defendant who was acquitted of “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” a crime under the penal code, after he reportedly handed a book explaining the Bible to another individual.  The appeals court ruling mentioned the ICCPR, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.”

Nonregistered religious groups reported receiving varying treatment by authorities; however, during the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting these groups from practicing their religion in private.  A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal in past years to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious ceremonies.  There were no known Shia mosques.  Shia representatives reported they had not attempted to register during the year.

According to representatives of the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms, on May 3 government authorities refused to accept the application for registration of their association under the determination the association aimed to undermine Islam.

A Christian group applied to register as an association in December 2018; it was awaiting a response from MOI at year’s end.

The government allowed the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches.  Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended their churches, and they did not encourage them to do so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing.  According to some reports from activists, authorities at times pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith by informing the converts’ friends, relatives, and employers of the individuals’ conversion.  According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities made phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.  Foreigners attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches.

According to media reports, on June 20, the Collective for Democracy and Liberties cancelled a long-planned seminar on individual rights, including “sexual rights” and religious freedom, immediately before it was scheduled to begin.  A statement from the Ministry of Justice explained the Ministry of Interior had informed the seminar organizers they lacked the appropriate registration to hold the event.  Assabah reported the Head of Government Saadeddin El Othmani, Minister of State for Human Rights Ramid, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar, and Secretary-General of the Party of Progress and Socialism Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah withdrew from participating in the seminar after cabinet and party members were reportedly ordered not to participate in any meetings encouraging sectarianism.  According to a Telquel article, Minister Aujjar said that after reviewing the agenda for the seminar, he cancelled his participation because “speaking about individual liberties does not bother [him], but it is a difficult question to assume politically.”

In an interview on June 14, Minister Ramid stated “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion.  On June 19, Minister Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens, but said throughout history Morocco had allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religions freely.  The Moroccan Christians Coordinating Group issued statements rejecting Minister Aujjar’s denial that they, whose numbers they maintained exceed those of Morocco’s recognized Jewish population, exist.

According to a human rights association, on November 26, it hosted a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities.  During the event, leaders of human rights organizations said they were beginning to follow the issue more closely; however, limited information was available and official data on Moroccan religious minorities was not available.

The ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa imposed in 2017 remained in effect.  The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban.  The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use.  Authorities, however, continued not to allow police and army personnel in uniform to wear a hijab.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious sphere and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam.  It employed 1852 morchidines and 804 morchidates in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country.  The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning.  It continued to provide government-required, one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year.  It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa.  The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country.  The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere with the topics the religious leaders chose to address during sermons; however, religious leaders were required to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher when they operated in the country.

The MEIA monitored Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.  The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism.  Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  Its policy remained to control the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify morchidines and morchidates with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus social media to monitor and ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches.  In October the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca began the construction of a community center with approval from government authorities.  The government also gave the Anglican Church approval to renovate and expand the church upon completion of its community center.

The government permitted the display and sale of bibles in French, English, and Spanish.  A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in university religion courses.  Authorities confiscated bibles they believed were intended for use in proselytizing.

During the year, the government organized four national and regional training sessions on instruction based on “values” and “respect for religious principles.”  The government also introduced 13 new textbooks on the subjects of religion and legal sciences at the primary, junior and high school levels following a review by the MEIA and the Ministry of Education to remove extremist or intolerant references and promote moderation and tolerance.  As of year’s end, the government was also drafting an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.”  Modifications to textbooks continued through the end of the year.

Jewish and Christian citizens stated elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country.  The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels.  Television channel Assadissa (Sixth) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam.  For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.  The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated.  It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered.  The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations.  The government occasionally prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance.  Since 2012, an estimated 170 Jewish cemeteries across 40 provinces have been restored.  According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues.

The Prison Administration (DGAPR) said it authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

Two adoul (notaries), typically religious men, are needed to perform marriages.  In January the School of Islamic Thought and Testimonies convinced the Supreme Scientific Council to amend the law so the king could permit women to become adoul.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the heads of the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in Moroccan society.

In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the USHMM, to facilitate the sharing of documentation on Jewish history in Morocco.  The delegation met with country’s leaders to discuss continuing collaboration between the museum and the country’s National Archives to promote religious tolerance and awareness.

On September 10-12, the government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie.  According to media reports, at the conference King Mohammed VI delivered remarks describing the tradition of coexistence in the country between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

On September 26, Head of Government El Othmani delivered a message from the king at a UN roundtable table on “The Power of Education in Preventing Racism and Discrimination:  The Case of Anti-Semitism” in New York on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.  The message highlighted the country’s preservation of its synagogues and noted the importance of “shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments, but also its darkest hours.”  It stated, “Anti-Semitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression.  It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.”

In November the Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, opened the Bayt Al Dakyra (House of Memory), a research center built from the remains of an old synagogue in Essaouira.  On December 11-12, UNESCO and the Aladdin Project in partnership with Mohammed V University, a public university in Rabat, hosted an international conference in Marrakech titled, “The Importance of History Teaching in Education: The Case of the Holocaust and Great Tragedies of History and 75 Years after the Holocaust, Honoring the Righteous in the Muslim World.”  The organizers paid tribute to the “Muslim Righteous” from Morocco and other countries that helped Jews during the Second World War and discussed the importance of education for highlighting the different phases and experiences of coexistence in the region.  Public officials from Mohammed V University, the Ministry of Education, the Archives of Morocco, and other public institutions participated in the conference.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some activists in minority religious communities reported the government did not respond to complaints about societal harassment.  According to a report in Assabah, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador reported facing intimidation, including one death threat.  The MOI investigated the claims and reported they were unfounded.

Representatives of minority religious groups, especially Christian, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i citizens, said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.  According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religious rituals were Jews.

There were reports from the media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends.  Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but they feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm.  According to an interview with TelQuel, however, some Baha’i citizens did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.

Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

Jewish citizens said they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety.  They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.  On November 13-18, the Moroccan Community Abroad Council and the Israelite Community of Morocco Council cohosted a conference on Moroccan Judaism.  The public conference convened primarily Moroccan-born Jews residing in Canada, France, and Israel, with the leadership of the local Jewish community and Moroccan civil society groups.

Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses, as well as with the army and police, if they wore a hijab or other head covering.  When women who wore a hijab did obtain employment with the police, army, and in some private businesses, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours.

In December interfaith academics and an unregistered religious freedom organization coordinated a seminar on religious minorities and interfaith dialogue between Islamic schools of thought in Marrakech.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering superior education.  According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

Mozambique

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 27.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the U.S. government, 28 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 18 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 15 percent Zionist Christian, 12 percent Protestant (includes Pentecostal/Evangelical, 10 percent), and 7 percent other religious groups, including the Baha’i Faith, Judaism, and Hinduism.  Approximately 18 percent do not profess any religion or belief.  According to Christian and Muslim religious leaders, a significant portion of the population adheres to syncretic indigenous religious beliefs, characterized by a combination of African traditional practices and aspects of either Christianity or Islam, a category not included in government estimates.  Muslim leaders state their community accounts for 25-30 percent of the total population, a statistic frequently reported in the press.

A census conducted in August 2017 included questions on religious affiliation.  The full census results were scheduled to be released in spring 2019.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state.  It prohibits religious discrimination, provides for the right of citizens to practice or not practice a religion, and stipulates that no individuals may be deprived of their rights because of religious faith or practice.  Political parties are constitutionally prohibited from using names or symbols associated with religious groups.  The constitution protects places of worship and the right of religious groups to organize, worship, and pursue their religious objectives freely and to acquire assets in pursuit of those objectives.  It recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons.  These and other rights may temporarily be suspended or restricted only in the event of a declaration of a state of war, siege, or emergency, in accordance with the terms of the constitution.

The law requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice, Constitutional, and Religious Affairs.  Under the law, “religious organizations” are charities or humanitarian organizations, whereas “religious groups” refer to particular denominations.  Religious groups register at the denominational level or congregational level if they are unaffiliated.  Religious groups and organizations register by submitting an application, providing identity documents of the local leaders, and submitting documentation of declared ties to any international religious group or organization.  There are no penalties for failure to register; however, religious groups and organizations must show evidence of registration to open bank accounts, file for exemption of customs duties for imported goods, or submit visa applications for visiting foreign members.

An accord between the national government and the Holy See governs the Catholic Church’s rights and responsibilities in the country.  The agreement recognizes the Catholic Church as a “legal personality” and recognizes the Church’s exclusive right “to regulate ecclesiastical life and to nominate people for ecclesiastical posts.”  The agreement requires Catholic Church representatives to register with the government to benefit from the Church’s status.  The accord also gives the Catholic Church the exclusive right to create, modify, or eliminate ecclesiastical boundaries; however, it stipulates that ecclesiastical territories must report to a Church authority in the country.

The law permits religious organizations to own and operate schools.  The law forbids religious instruction in public schools.

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

Government Practices

Violent attacks by Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah continued throughout the year in northern Cabo Delgado Province.  The group, which claimed ties to the al-Shabaab terrorist group and was characterized by the government and the media as jihadist, was composed primarily of Muslims who followed what observers said was a strict version of Islam.  The attacks, which began in October 2017, included killings of security force members and beheading of civilians.  Significant security force operations to counter these attacks were at times heavy-handed, according to NGOs and news media, which said they focused primarily on Muslims following a strict interpretation of Islam and contributed to a “growing cycle of grievance and revenge” between militant Islamists and security forces.  Several organizations reported men, women, and children being arbitrarily detained based on appearing to be Muslim.  The government charged the detainees with crimes including first-degree murder, use of banned weapons, membership in a criminal association, and instigating collective disobedience against public order.  The government continued to state publicly that security forces had the situation under control.

In response to the attacks, government officials stated they arrested more than 280 attackers, whom they termed suspected jihadists, and at year’s end were prosecuting 189 of those individuals, including 152 Mozambicans, 26 Tanzanians, and three Somali nationals.  Among the individuals arrested were Muslim religious leaders.  Representatives of international organizations with access to the region stated they believed the number of individuals arrested was higher than that reported by the government.

Human rights organizations stated that the government also responded by implementing policies that they said inhibited reliable reporting in the northern region.  Reporting on the attacks remained limited and was often characterized as unreliable due to a strong security force presence and what journalists termed a government-imposed media blackout in the region.

In May the government reported reopening all of the seven mosques it ordered closed in 2017 after repeated attacks on police stations and hospital units by armed men who had alleged links to persons termed Islamists.  According to Provincial Director of Justice Alvaro Junior, the government decided to destroy seven other mosques due to their links to radicalism.

The Ministry of Justice registered 32 new religious groups and six new religious organizations during the year.  There were a total of 913 religious groups and 232 religious organizations registered.  There were no reports of difficulty with religious groups registering.

The Greek Orthodox Church continued to report no progress in its efforts to obtain the return of the Ateneu (Athenaeum), a church property in central Maputo seized by the government after independence and renamed the Palacio dos Casamentos (Wedding Palace).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The leader of a Maputo mosque, Sheikh Saide Habibe, condemned the attacks in the northern part of the country, stating that the Islam preached by Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah was not in line with traditional Muslim values.  Habibe also coauthored, with prominent civil society members, a yet-to-be-released study on the nature of what was termed the extremist threat in the north of the country.  In a preview the study identified the group’s membership as consisting mainly of disenfranchised youth from the overwhelmingly Muslim M’wani ethnic group that believed itself unjustly dominated by the overwhelmingly Christian Makonde ethnic group, which was perceived as constituting much of the ruling and economic elite in the province and in their districts.

In January the Mozambican Council of Religions facilitated a National Summit on Peace and Reconciliation to find solutions to the conflict that followed the 2014 general election.  The summit was widely attended by religious and political leaders from throughout the country, as well as the international community.

Civil society and religious organizations conducted outreach to promote religious tolerance during the year.  During Eid al-Adha, Muslim leaders in Nampula gathered former liberation fighters, civil society groups, and politicians at a rally condemning those who allegedly use religion for illicit and criminal purposes.  Muslim leaders and organizations in Maputo worked with the government to counter violence in the northern part of the country.

Namibia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, approximately 97 percent of the population identifies as Christian.  According to church statistics and the government’s 2013 Demographic and Health Survey, approximately 50 percent identify as Lutheran and 20 percent as Catholic.  Other groups, including Anglican, various Reformed denominations, Adventist, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, evangelicals, charismatics, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up the remaining 27 percent of the population that is Christian.  The number of Pentecostal and charismatic churches is growing.  Some Zionist churches combine Christianity and traditional African beliefs.  Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and other non-Christians together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population and reside primarily in urban areas.

Many members of the Himba and San ethnic groups combine indigenous religious beliefs with Christianity.  Muslims are mostly Sunni and are predominantly immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, South Asia, or recent converts.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies the country is a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, as well as the right to enjoy, practice, profess, maintain, and promote any religion.  These rights may be subject to “reasonable restrictions” justified by interests such as “the sovereignty and integrity of Namibia, national security, public order, decency, or morality.”

The law allows recognition of any religious group as a voluntary association, without the need to register with the government.  Religious groups may also register as nonprofit organizations (an “association without gain”) with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.  Both religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations and religious groups formed as voluntary associations are exempt from paying taxes.  A welfare organization may apply to the Department of Inland Revenue to receive tax-exempt status.  Once registered as a welfare organization, a religious group may seek to obtain communal land at a reduced rate, which is at the discretion of traditional authorities or town councils, based on whether they believe the organization’s use of the land will benefit the community.

The constitution permits religious groups to establish private schools provided no student is denied admission based on creed.  The government school curriculum contains a nonsectarian “religious and moral education” component that includes education on moral principles and human rights and introduces students to a variety of African traditions and religions, as well as world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Baha’i Faith, and Rastafarianism.

Similar to other foreigners seeking to work in the country, religious workers must obtain an appropriate visa.

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

Government Practices

The government Ombudsman’s Office received one religiously related complaint during the year from a religious group regarding visas for a foreign religious organization.

The government periodically included religious leaders in discussions regarding issues affecting the country and in national events.  President Hage Geingob held consultations with leaders from major religious groups in the country, including from the Council of Churches that represented Christian denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dutch Reformed Church, and Roman Catholic Church, and from the Muslim community, to discuss opportunities for collaboration in fighting poverty.

Religious leaders said the only issues they occasionally faced with the government were regarding visas.  The director of the Windhoek Islamic Centre stated that during the year a Saudi investor who was attempting to visit to assess a mosque site had difficulty obtaining a visa.