An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


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.

Kyrgyz Republic

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views.  It bans actions inciting religious hatred.

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state.  It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups.  The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal.  It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another (proselytism)” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA.  The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups, unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups, and religiously affiliated schools, to register with the SCRA, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion.  The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups.  Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members.  Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens.  Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality.  The SCRA may also deny or postpone the certification of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character.  Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts.  The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services.  Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($7).

After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities.  The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members.  If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes.  By law religious groups are designated as nonprofit organizations exempt from taxes on their religious activities.

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group as long as the SCRA delivers written notice to the group stating the group does not comply with the law.  The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.”  A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a term of five to 10 years.  Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.

The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism, and it allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country.  The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity.  If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country.  All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually.  Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported.  Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($14), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which could include examination by state experts.  The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for religious experts.  The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions.  The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations.

The law allows public secular schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion.  Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service.  Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($260) to opt out of military service.  Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age.  Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 240 hours of community service or pay a fine of up to 20,000 som ($290).  Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years.  There is no option to perform alternative service; community service is imposed only in cases of a conscientious objector failing to pay the 18,000 som ($260) fee.

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

Government Practices

The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist:  al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar.  Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.

Media reported that on September 19, upon the recommendation of the SCRA, the Ministry of Interior filed two criminal cases against two inhabitants of Issyk-Kul Province for possessing materials it said were extremist related to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Law enforcement authorities stated they had recorded 358 religiously motivated extremist incidents for the first six months of the year.  They opened criminal cases in 213 instances.  Extremist incidents included membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, possession of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization.  In comparison, the authorities recorded 597 extremist incidents in 2017 (35.3 percent higher than in 2016), for which they opened 229 criminal cases.  According to a Ministry of Interior report, there were 285 individuals arrested for extremism and terrorism and 3,586 pieces of extremist materials extracted within the first six months of the year.  Government law enforcement analysis identified domestic extremism as a growing trend, noting the state had identified 101 “extremist” incidents in 2010, compared with 597 incidents in 2017.  There were no reports of citizens being stripped of citizenship for terrorism or extremism, although ethnic Uzbeks said they were arrested and imprisoned on extremism-related charges, usually tied to possession of banned literature or support of banned organizations, based on false testimony or planted evidence.

According to NGOs, in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials.  On September 17, Human Rights Watch published the report “We Live in Constant Fear:  Possession of Extremist Material in Kyrgyzstan,” which identified instances where law enforcement agencies were accused of torturing and extorting suspects found to possess “extremist” materials.  The report noted prosecutions for possessing extremist material were carried out under Article 299-2 of the criminal code, the country’s most widely applied charge against terrorism and extremism suspects.  It stated that at least 258 persons had been convicted under the article since 2010.  The report also stated several hundred suspects were awaiting trial on the charge and the numbers had increased each year, with 167 new cases opened during the first nine months of the year.

Throughout the year the SCRA substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law, and it held two public hearings in August at which the revised amendments were discussed.  Although the Parliamentary Committee on Social Issues, Education, Science, Culture, and Healthcare had already approved the proposed amendments in 2017, the SCRA withdrew them from parliamentary consideration in order to revise them.  The revised amendments include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing and a requirement to notify the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad.  Some religious groups said, after consultations with the SCRA, the proposed amendments had undergone changes the groups considered positive.  For example, the SCRA eliminated a proposed change to increase the number of members required to register as a religious organization (from 200 to 500 members), allowing registered religious organizations to create filial branches across the country regardless of the number of adherents in a locality.  NGOs and religious groups also cited as positive amendments that eliminated the need for religious organizations to coordinate registration with local councils in addition to SCRA registration.  In meetings with government officials, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses noted concerns with the revised draft amendments, stating they would introduce elements that would have a negative impact on their ability to share their faith with others and register local congregations.  In September Jehovah’s Witnesses presented the organization’s concerns with the draft amendments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw.  As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete.  Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending.  The SCRA reported it registered one Jewish, one Buddhist, and 12 Baha’i congregations during the year.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group confirmed it still had not obtained registration.  The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA had declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2018.

The SCRA continued to state that, while the law did not mandate expert review of religious literature, its practice was to examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations.  There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts performing the examination of religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship.  According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars with whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts.  Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code.

According to the Kyrgyz Baptist Union, local authorities had not approved its request to convert the status of a Baptist church in Kara-Kul, Jalalabad Province, from a “residential home” to a “prayer house.”  In addition, the Kara-Kul Mayor’s Office issued a decision to close the church for failing to adhere to the local government’s zoning status.  The Kyrgyz Baptist Union called the decision illegal, saying the law did not give this power to local authorities.  The Baptist Union stated it had addressed this issue with the SCRA multiple times without resolution.

According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.

The SCRA held interfaith dialogue forums in all seven provinces of the country during the year.  These forums included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants, as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and State Committee on National Security.  The forums focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities, as well as between the state and religious organizations.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution.  It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws.  Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs.  The interim constitution also states “there shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights.  Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law.  The GNA remains bound by the constitutional declaration until a new constitution is passed by the House of Representatives and a public referendum held.  The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict and provide a national legal framework for religious freedom.

There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs.  There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion.  It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death.  The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious material.

The GNA and the East each have a Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA).  The MEIAs administer mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.  Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools.  Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students with no opt-out provisions.

Sharia governs family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property.  Under sharia, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman.  Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal under sharia, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad.  The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law.  The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.

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

Government Practices

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

The internationally recognized GNA remained in office, but did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the East and South.

The United Nations Development Program reported the judicial system was functioning, albeit at different levels depending on the location of the courts within the country.  Human Rights Watch, however, said key institutions, “most notably, law enforcement and the judiciary,” were dysfunctional or had stopped working in most parts of the country.  The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported courts in the areas controlled by the GNA continued to sentence defendants to corporal punishment in accordance with its interpretation of sharia, including flogging for adultery and amputations for theft; however, according to UNSMIL, the government did not routinely carry out these punishments in practice.

According to international NGOs working in the country, a variety of groups – revolutionary brigades, tribal militias, and local strongmen – provided security in and around courts.  The GNA incorporated several of these armed groups into the Ministry of Interior, but observers said the GNA’s control over these groups remained limited.  Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in the harassment of Christians.  The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.  For instance, in September, the GNA condemned clashes that broke out between armed groups in Tripoli that caused the displacement of thousands of non-Libyan migrants in the capital.

The SDF, while formally a counterterrorism force, also engaged in other functions including policing on moral and religious issues.  According to human rights activists, SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law.  Detainees reported torture and abuse at the hands of the SDF while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.  Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who said that in 2017, the SDF detained him at Mitiga Airport Prison facility in Tripoli for two weeks.  The man said he was flogged twice a day during his detention.

According to media reports, on February 22, the SDF arrested a Moroccan woman, Ghizlane Soukane, in Tripoli, on charges of practicing sorcery and magic.  There was no update on her whereabouts or the status of her case at year’s end.

The National Committee for Human Rights in Libya reported that in October, following the committee’s intervention, an Egyptian Coptic resident, Kirlus Hani Abdulmalik, was released from detention at the SDF-run Mitiga Airport Prison facility.  Abdulmalik, a pharmacist, was detained since December 2016 without charge, reportedly because SDF forces believed it was illegal for Abdulmalik to practice medicine and provide treatments to Libyans because he was non-Muslim.

On February 26, the Office of Islamic Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Misrata, a regional affiliate of the GNA’s MEIA, arrested Abdulaziz al-Siawi, a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, for explicitly calling for terrorist operations in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, in response to those governments’ anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies.  Earlier in February a surreptitiously recorded video was released of a December 2017 Friday sermon al-Siawi delivered at the Mosque of Al-Sheikh Mohammad in Misrata in which he said “Let me say [clearly] that I want to call for terrorism.”  On March 2, members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, together with members of the Council of Elders and Shura, which is headed by Ibrahim bin Ghashir, demonstrated at the courtyard of the Sheikh Amhamed Mosque against the decision of the GNA to prohibit al-Siawi from delivering sermons.  Authorities subsequently released al-Siawi.

The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees.  According to the Refugees International Field Report published in April, a 23-year-old Ethiopian Christian woman identified as Sara said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.”  In the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee from South Sudan identified as David, who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli, said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than to others.

In September seven Christian migrants who, along with 173 others were repatriated to Nigeria on August 30, told Black Christian News Network One they had been detained in Osama Prison in Zawiya.  One of the men said guards hung him in chains overnight and left him to die.  In the morning they took his body to a shallow grave in the forest, but, upon discovering he was still alive, brought him back to the prison, and put him in solitary confinement.  Authorities returned the men to Nigeria following the intervention of the International Organization for Migration.

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

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

In August the Ministry of Education issued a decree suspending admission to special religious schools, including the Religious Academy in Tajoura.  During the suspension, the ministry conducted a review of the curriculum at these schools to ensure its interpretation of the Quran and Islamic hadith did not contain hateful or incendiary language toward other religions.  Former Grand Mufti of Libya Al-Sadiq Abdulrahman al-Ghiryani and Salafist religious figures condemned the suspension, which remained in place at year’s end.  The Ministry of Education worked with the U.S. embassy to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.  The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

Government officials at airports throughout the country continued to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country without a male guardian, although there was no law or government regulation restricting such travel.  NGOs with local staff reported women often had male relatives accompany them to the airport and carried written permission from their male guardians to enable them to leave the country.

According to human rights activists, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religious practice and political issues.  The draft constitution would maintain sharia as “the source of legislation.”  The draft constitution would also ban non-Muslims from key offices of state including the presidency, legislature, and prohibit non-Muslims from being appointed cabinet ministers.

During the year, nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including Benghazi and parts of Tripoli.  In Derna, prior to the LNA operations to take the city, there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards.

Multiple sources state Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings.  Christian groups operating in the country identified the LNA-aligned Madkhali Salafist groups operating in Benghazi as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians.  Academic studies and media describe the Madkhali movement as a form of very strict Salafism.

According to a Christian group operating in the country, Christian residents continued to report abuse at the hands of militant Muslim groups, including members of the former Libya Shield Force affiliated with the Libyan Dawn battalion, whose physical mistreatment of detainees included floggings, exposure to cold weather, and other abuses; they also reportedly threatened Christians with execution by beheading.  Christian residents reported similar abuses by other groups, including the Benghazi Revolutionary Brigades (BRB), a jihadist Salafist militia coalition.  Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who, in 2017, was repatriated to Egypt after the BRB kidnapped him and held him for 18 days.  He was released after payment of a ransom.

Human Rights Watch reported that on January 23, an unidentified armed group or groups detonated two car bombs in front of the Baya’at al-Radwan Mosque in Benghazi as worshippers were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 34 males, including three children, and wounding more than 90 other individuals.  According to spokespersons for the two main hospitals for emergency and trauma services in Benghazi, the majority of victims were civilians.

In December Reuters news service reported local authorities said they had exhumed from a mass grave near Sirte the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians executed by ISIS.  According to Reuters, in April 2015 a video posted on social media appeared to show ISIS members shooting and beheading the Christians, who were migrant workers.

Reuters also reported the government returned to Egypt the bodies of 20 Coptic Christians in May.  Reuters reported that in January 2015 a video released online appeared to show ISIS members beheading the individuals, together with one Ghanaian Christian, on a beach near Sirte and burying them in a mass grave.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in January that the Madkhali movement grew more influential.  The Christian Science Monitor said Madkhali units associated with LNA-affiliated groups functioned as informal police forces.  The newspaper said in January members of the Madkhali movement patrolled the streets of Tripoli to stop crime and what they viewed as “vice” contrary to Islam and to disrupt ISIS cells and attacks.

The MEIA of the nonrecognized governmental administration in the East exercised its ability to issue fatwas.  According to local human rights activists in Benghazi, followers of the Madkhali movement exercised influence over academic institutions, in addition to overt control of MEIA.

On November 12, Mousa Abdalsalam Taieb, Director of Cultural and Religious Conversion Affairs for MEIA in the East, issued a circular calling for takfir (a pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever [kafir] and no longer a Muslim) as the penalty for individuals who celebrated the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday; cooked a porridge traditionally prepared for this holiday; or engaged in ritual praise of Mohammed.  Sources noted all of these practices were part of traditional Islamic practice in the country.

According to Human Rights Watch, the 2017 MEIA religious edict by the “eastern interim government” based in Tobruk remained in effect against Ibadi Muslims, accusing the group of deviance and following an infidel doctrine.

According to Libyan academic researchers, the General Administration for Criminal Investigation in Benghazi continued to conduct investigations of citizens for denigrating Islam and for converting others to Christianity, and proselytizing on social media.

According to human rights activists and political analysts, the MEIA in the East continued to provide texts for Friday services to imams, often including political and social messages.  According to media reports, the LNA continued to appoint several imams with Salafist beliefs in areas of its control throughout the East.

U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, including Ansar al-Sharia, AQIM, and ISIS, continued to operate within the country, although there were no reports during the year of explicitly religiously motivated attacks.  Sources indicated Ansar al-Sharia maintained connections with extremists in other parts of the country, including AQIM.  Following expulsion from Sirte in December 2016, ISIS was believed to be largely confined to nonpopulated areas outside of major cities, as well as to ungoverned regions in the South.

On June 28, the LNA took control of the eastern city of Derna from the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna (SCMD), an umbrella organization consisting of Salafist groups opposed to ISIS, including Ansar al-Sharia.  According to human rights activists, when SCMD controlled Derna, it restricted the freedom of Sunni Muslims to worship or engage in what SCMD considered heterodox religious expression.

In October Ali al-Subaiy, a former Libya Islamic Fighting Group member and an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Representatives seat for the Hayy al-Andalus Neighborhood of Tripoli, gave an interview on the Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Channel 9 television station.  Al-Subaiy called Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for “offensive jihad” against Jews and Christians.  In September al-Subaiy said in an interview on the same channel that “history informs us that [the Jews] are treacherous and deceitful.”


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 in conformity with the law.

According to the penal code, any act of discrimination based on religion or any act impeding the freedom of religious observance or worship is punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment or 10 years’ banishment (prohibition from residing in the country).  The penal code also states any religiously motivated persecution of a group of persons constitutes a crime against humanity.  There is no statute of limitations for such crimes.

The law requires registration of all public associations, including religious groups, except for groups practicing indigenous religious beliefs; however, registration confers no tax preferences or other legal benefits, and there is no penalty for failure to register.  To register, applicants must submit copies of a declaration of intent to create an association, notarized copies of bylaws, copies of policies and regulations, notarized copies of a report of the first meeting of the association’s general assembly, and lists of the names of the leaders of the association with signature samples of three of the leaders.  Upon review, if approved, the Ministry of Territorial Administration grants the certificate of registration.

The constitution prohibits public schools from offering religious instruction, but private schools may do so.  Islamic religious schools, which are privately funded and known locally as medersas (a variant of madrassah), teach Islam but are required to adhere to the standard government curriculum.  Non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic religious classes.  Catholic schools teach the standard educational curriculum and do not require Muslim students to attend Catholic religious classes.  Informal schools, known locally as Quranic schools, which some students attend in lieu of public schools, do not follow a government curriculum and offer exclusively religious instruction.

The law defines marriage as secular.  Couples who seek legal recognition must have a civil ceremony, which they may follow with a religious ceremony.  Under the law, a man may choose between a monogamous or polygamous marriage.  The law states that the religious customs of the deceased determine inheritance rights.  Civil courts consider these customs when they adjudicate such cases; however, many cases are settled informally.

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

Government Practices

On January 31, the government adopted a new national strategy to counter violent extremism.  The strategy was based on five pillars:  Prevention, Protection, Pursuit, Response, and Social Cohesion.  Specific objectives outlined in the national strategy include:  eliminating conditions conducive to the development of terrorism and violent extremism, including but not limited to religious outreach and interfaith efforts; prosecuting all perpetrators and accomplices of crimes of violent extremism and terrorism; providing fair and diligent responses in the event of a terrorist attack or acts of violent extremism perpetrated on national territory, with respect for human rights and the rule of law; contributing to the regeneration of a collective identity, including religious tolerance and coexistence, to strengthen the bonds of national solidarity.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship was responsible for administering the national CVE strategy, in addition to promoting religious tolerance and coordinating national religious activities such as pilgrimages and religious holidays for followers of all religions.  On November 17-18, the ministry organized, in coordination with the archbishop, the annual Catholic pilgrimage in Kita Cercle and called for religious tolerance among faiths, a sentiment echoed by President Keita in an official statement on November 18.  The ministry also continued supporting a training program for moderate Sufi imams in Morocco, one objective of which was to improve interfaith tolerance.

The Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission continued operating through the year.  In December it opened its field office in Kidal Region.  By year’s end, the commission heard 10,102 testimonies, including cases of religious freedom violations.

Throughout the year, mostly in the country’s central and northern regions, domestic and transnational violent terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliates Ansar al-Dine, Macina Liberation Front, and Al-Mourabitoun, united under the umbrella JNIM, continued to carry out attacks against security forces, UN peacekeepers, civilians, and others they reportedly perceived as not adhering to their interpretation of Islam.

According to eyewitness and media reporting, on September 11, in the town of Hombori, Mopti Region, armed men believed to be JNIM affiliates interrupted a party by firing in the air, threatened those in attendance, and vandalized the venue.  The men announced that playing music and dancing were not acceptable in Islam.

According to church leaders in the town of Barareli, Mopti Region, on December 30, armed men believed to be affiliated with JNIM fired on the town’s church while Christian youth were gathered for Bible study.  No injuries were reported.

According to Christian leaders, continued threats from JNIM prevented the Christian community in Djidja from reopening its church that was closed due to threats from JNIM in 2017.  Six church workers who fled the area remained displaced at year’s end.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, specifies separation of religion and state as an unalterable principle, and stipulates equality under the law for all, regardless of religion.  It provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and expression of faith consistent with public order, social peace, and national unity.  The constitution also states no religion or faith shall claim political power or interfere in state affairs and bans political parties based on religious affiliation.

Nongovernmental organizations, including religious organizations, must register with the MOI.  Registration approval is based on submission of required legal documents, including the group’s charter, minutes of the group’s board of directors, annual action plan, and list of the organization’s founders.  Although some unregistered religious organizations reportedly operate without authorization in remote areas, only registered organizations are legally recognized entities.  The MOI requires clerics speaking to a large national gathering either to belong to a registered religious organization or to obtain a special permit.  Nonregistered groups are not legal entities and are not permitted to operate.

Registered religious groups wishing to obtain permanent legal status must undergo a three-year review and probationary period before the Office of Religious Affairs, which is under the MOI, grants a change in legal status from probationary to permanent.

The constitution specifies the president, prime minister, and president of the national assembly must take an oath when assuming office on the holy book of his or her religion.  By law, other senior government officials are also required to take religious oaths upon entering office.

The government prohibits full-face veils in the Diffa Region under state of emergency provisions to prevent concealment of bombs and weapons.

The government prohibits open-air, public proselytization events by all religious groups due to expressed safety concerns.  There is no legal restriction on private peaceful proselytization or conversion of an individual’s personal religious beliefs from one religious faith to another, as long as the group espousing the transition is registered with the government.

The establishment of any private school by a religious association must receive the concurrence of both the MOI and the relevant department of the Ministry of Education (Primary, Secondary, Superior, or Vocational).  Private Quranic schools, established uniquely to teach the Quran without providing other education, are unregulated.  Most public schools do not include religious education.  The government funds a small number of special primary schools (called “French and Arabic Schools”) that include Islamic religious study as part of the curriculum.

There are no restrictions on the issuance of visas for visiting religious representatives; however, long-term residency of foreign religious representatives must be approved by the MOI.

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

Government Practices

The government continued its efforts to reduce radicalization or the risk of radicalization through an Islamic Forum, a national forum representing more than 50 organizations, with the stated goal of standardizing the practice of Islam in the country.  The Directorate of Religious Affairs, within the MOI, initiated the forum in October 2017.  In meetings throughout the year, the forum discussed means to control mosque construction, regulate Quranic instruction, and monitor the content of sermons.  With the input of the forum, the MOI drafted a law during the year that would provide a framework for government control of these aspects of religious practice.  At year’s end, the law remained under ministerial review and, according to the MOI’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, was expected to be submitted to the National Assembly for possible passage in 2019.

Government officials expressed concern about funding from Iran, Turkey, and other countries for the construction of mosques and training of imams, but according to observers, the government had only limited resources to track the extent of the funding and fully understand its consequences.

Pilgrims complained, as in past years, about difficulties associated with performing the Hajj.  Complaints included high costs, cancelled flights, lost luggage, poor hotels, bad food, and unfair business practices leaving some travelers unattended in Saudi Arabia despite having paid for a package tour.  The government’s Commission for the Organization of the Hajj and Umrah came under criticism again, as in past years.  The commission oversaw Hajj participation of 15,000 pilgrims during the year.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution provides that, in addition to common law courts, states may establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law.  Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory.  Customary courts function in most of the 36 states.  The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction.  The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; they do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims.  At least one state, Zamfara, requires civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim be heard in sharia courts, with the option to appeal any decision to the common law court.  Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.

The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases.  In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue.  Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for “hudud” offenses (serious criminal offenses with punishments prescribed in the Quran) that provide for punishments such as caning, amputation, and death by stoning.  Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts.  The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who are not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code.  Sharia experts often advise them.

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

To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).

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

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

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

Government Practices

As in previous years, international and domestic media reported significant violence against the IMN, the country’s largest Shia organization, by security forces.  According to media, on October 27, members of the armed forces fired on Shia Muslims participating in the Arba’een Symbolic Trek organized by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) on October 27, killing at least three persons.  IMN members marched from Suleja to Abuja for the Arba’een Symbolic Trek, marking the Shia Muslim commemoration of the end of the 40-day period following Ashura.  The army released a statement saying the IMN had set up illegal roadblocks in Abuja, blocking the path of an army convoy transporting missiles.  The army also said it met “resistance” from IMN members who attempted to steal missiles and threw stones and other objects.  The army stated it opened fire in response, killing three civilians, while the IMN said 10 of its members died in the incident.  On October 29, with IMN marchers confirmed by the press to be approaching the city along at least three major feeder thoroughfares, an additional clash occurred at a military checkpoint at the border between Nasarawa State and the Federal Capital Territory near Abuja, in which the army used live rounds to break up the crowd.  Amnesty International Nigeria reported at least 39 deaths and numerous injuries among the marchers.  The government reported it opened an internal investigation of this incident but did not publish its findings, and no military or police were held accountable.  On December 17, the New York Times reported that video footage appeared to show armed forces members beating and shooting unarmed protesters.  The video contained no evidence the soldiers were provoked.

The federal government continued to detain IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky despite a December 2016 court ruling the government should release him.  Hundreds of IMN members regularly protested in Abuja against Zakzaky’s continued detention.  In April the Kaduna State government charged Zakzaky in state court with multiple felonies stemming from the death of the soldier in Zaria.  The charges include culpable homicide, which can carry the death penalty.  At year’s end, the case was pending.

There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave.  In July a Kaduna High Court dismissed charges of aiding and abetting culpable homicide against more than 80 IMN members.  The Kaduna State government appealed the ruling, and at year’s end the case remained pending.  Approximately 100 additional IMN members remained in detention.

According to international media reports, on December 25, unidentified gunmen abducted two Catholic priests from St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Umueze Anam, Anambra State, as they were returning from an official function.  Haruna Mohammed, the state’s Police Public Relations Officer, said police secured their release on December 27.

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

In June the High Court in Yola, Adamawa State sentenced five men to death for killing a Fulani herdsman.  Christian groups, including the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria, criticized the ruling.  They said the sentences highlighted the government’s bias in dealing with communal violence, noting the five men convicted were Christians who killed a Muslim, but there were no similar convictions when Fulani herdsmen killed Christians.

In July the Nigeria Body of Benchers, a body that regulates legal practice in the country, admitted Firdaus Amasa to the Nigerian Bar Association.  Amasa was denied participation in the call to the bar ceremony in December 2017 for refusing to remove her hijab, according to media reports.  After nationwide criticism from Muslim associations, including the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), the body reversed its earlier decision.

According to international media, on November 13, the Lagos State government ordered the tutor-general and permanent secretaries and principals to permit use of the hijab in public schools immediately.  According to the government, since the case of wearing hijabs was still pending in the Supreme Court, schools should revert to the status quo, allowing the use of hijabs with school uniforms.

In February the federal government launched Exercise Ayem Apatuma (Cat Race) to combat armed ethnoreligious conflict in Benue, Taraba, and Kogi States.  In March the federal government sent security forces to halt the increasing rural violence occurring in several Middle Belt states, where several conflicts occurred between Muslim and Christian groups.  In May the military launched Operation Whirl Stroke to increase security in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, and Zamfara States, where some of the ethnoreligious violence took place.

In July the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency organized a three-day peace and security summit, which included participation from religious leaders, traditional youth leaders, and female leaders, along with state government ministries and heads of the security agencies operating within the state.  The summit’s mission was to address ethnoreligious tensions and conflicts in the state and find a path towards sustainable peace.  In August the Kaduna State Peace Commission inaugurated its committees in all 23 LGAs of the state.  The committees in each LGA were to be comprised of traditional, religious, and youth leaders, who would cooperate on peacebuilding among ethnic and religious groups.

In August the Office of the Vice President (OVP) collaborated with the U.S. Institute for Peace, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) to organize a two-day Justice and Security National Dialogue (JSD).  The event included government, military, paramilitary, traditional, and religious leaders, along with civil society organizations and representatives from farming and herding communities.  The participants agreed to set up state-level JSD models developed during the event to manage ethnoreligious conflicts, as well as criminal activities, which sources stated often exacerbated conflicts.  State-level stakeholders began preparing to set up the models, and as of the end of the year, the state-level police commands had nominated officers to attend training in 2019 that is expected to be designed and conducted by the OVP, NHRC, and IPCR.

A pending bill in Kaduna State that would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years was deferred indefinitely after widespread opposition from Muslim and Christian religious leaders.

Christian groups reported authorities in some northern states refused to respond to requests for building permits for minority religious communities for construction of new places of worship, expansion and renovation of existing facilities, or reconstruction of buildings that had been demolished.  A Christian religious leader in Kano noted Christians could build churches freely in Sabon Gari, a part of town reserved for Christians, but only very old churches had valid permits; he added new permits had not been granted in decades.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Zamfara noted a case where a Christian businessman sold land and the certificate of occupancy to a Christian church during the year.  The church attempted to register the sale with the state government, but the sale was not approved because, according to the church, the government was concerned it would build a church.  CAN also said Christians in local communities in Zamfara occasionally did not inform the government when building a church because they feared the government would have it demolished.  He noted some Muslim traditional rulers have also had difficulty getting the sales approved when they have sold land to Christian churches.

Muslim students at Rivers State University of Science and Technology continued to complain they were unable to construct a place of worship.  In 2012 the university prevented Muslim students from constructing a mosque, leaving them with no place of worship.  The Muslim students filed a suit against the university, and the court ruled in their favor, but the university had not granted them a license to build the mosque by year’s end.

The Hisbah continued to arrest street beggars and prostitutes, and destroy confiscated bottles of alcohol.  There were no reports of Christians being forced to use sharia courts.  In January the Kano State Hisbah arrested 94 individuals who violated the law banning street begging, and in April the Hisbah received 36 cases of prostitution.  In May Zamfara State signed a bill conferring more powers on the state Hisbah commission to interrogate and arrest individuals and to undertake searches for evidence of anti-sharia activities or substances banned by sharia.  In September the Kano State Hisbah stated it confiscated 12 million bottles of beer within the past seven years, including more than 17,000 confiscated in September.  In April the Jigawa State Hisbah Board announced it had “saved” 4,000 marriages in the past two years by settling marriage disputes.  According to international media, in December Hisbah arrested 11 women for planning a lesbian wedding in Kano.  Director-General Abba Sufi stated “We can’t allow such despicable acts to find roots in our society.  Both Islam and Nigerian laws prohibit same-sex relationships.”

Christian and Muslim groups continued to report that individual administrators of government-run universities and technical schools in several states refused to admit certain individuals or delayed the issuance of their degrees and licenses because of religion or ethnicity.  A Christian pastor in Yobe said while Christians could gain entry into universities dominated by Muslims, they were relegated to the “lower” subjects and found it difficult to study for degrees in more desirable areas such as engineering, medicine, finance, and law.  A Muslim leader in southern Kaduna stated all government positions in the region were reserved for Christians.  He said Hausa and Fulani Muslims earned livelihoods predominantly in the private sector because there was no alternative.  According to Christian and Muslim groups and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the issue was connected to the country’s indigene-settler conflict, whereby state governments granted benefits, such as access to government services, to ethnic groups considered to be indigenous to a particular state, and distinguished them from ethnic groups considered to be settlers, even if their families had lived in the state for generations.  In certain states, especially in the Middle Belt, the divide between Christian indigenes and Muslim settlers was religious as well as ethnic and economic.

According to international reporting, on May 10, the Southern Kaduna Peace and Reconciliation Committee brought together security agencies in the state including police, army, civil defense, Department of State Security, and civil society, including religious leaders.  In the previous two years, southern Kaduna had experienced large-scale ethnoreligious violence, and the event was organized to foster trust through dialogue between the religious communities and security agencies.  Participants discussed the importance of resolving issues peacefully, how to focus on things the communities have in common instead of what divides them, and how security services could serve as assets in conflict mitigation.

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

Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets in Borno State.  Boko Haram also conducted limited attacks in Adamawa, while ISIS-WA attacked targets in Yobe.  While Boko Haram no longer controlled as much territory as it once did, the two insurgencies nevertheless maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian targets across the Northeast.

Boko Haram continued to employ suicide bombings targeting the local civilian population, including places of worship.  On January 3, a Boko Haram suicide bomber attacked a Gambaru mosque, killing 14 and injuring 15.  According to international news, on April 22, two suicide bombers killed three in a Bama, Borno State mosque.  On May 1, twin suicide bombings in Mubi, one in a mosque and another in a market, killed at least 27 and injured more than 60 persons.  According to Christian news outlets, on June 12, Boko Haram burned 22 buildings, including part of a catechetical training center in Kaya, Adamawa state.  On June 16, two Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked Damboa killing 31 persons returning from Ramadan celebrations on Eid al-Fitr.  On July 23, a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed eight worshippers in a mosque in Mainari.

On September 8, ISIS-WA militants, in what was reported as an effort to spread its religious ideology, launched an attack lasting several hours on Gudumbali town in Guzamala LGA of Borno State, but security forces repelled them.  According to estimates from the NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 1,911 persons, including Boko Haram members, died because of the group’s activities during the year, compared with 1,749 killed in 2017.

Approximately half of the students abducted by Boko Haram from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in 2014 remained in captivity.  In January the army reported the rescue of one girl in Borno State.  On February 19, ISIS-WA abducted 111 girls from the town of Dapchi, Yobe State.  According to press reports, five of the girls died during the abduction, while 105 were released on March 22 for unknown reasons.  Leah Sharibu remained with the insurgents, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity.  All other abductees were Muslims.  The CAN reported more than 900 churches were destroyed by Boko Haram in the Northeast since the insurgency began in 2010.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for the free practice of religious beliefs, provided public order is maintained, as well as self-governance by religious groups free from state interference.  The constitution prohibits political parties from identifying with a specific religion.  It states religious discrimination is punishable by law.

Muslims may choose either the civil family code or sharia to adjudicate family conflicts, such as marriage and inheritance disputes.  Civil court judges preside over civil and customary law cases, but religious leaders informally settle many disputes among Muslims, particularly in rural areas.

By law, all faith-based organizations, including religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) representing religious groups, must register with the Ministry of Interior to acquire legal status as an association.  To register, organizations must provide documentation showing they have been in existence for at least two years as an association.  Organizations must also provide a mission statement; bylaws; a list of goals, objectives, activities, or projects implemented; and proof of previous and future funding.  They must also pass a background check.  Registration enables a group to conduct business, own property, establish a bank account, receive financial contributions from private sources, and receive applicable tax exemptions.  There is no formal penalty for failure to register other than ineligibility to receive these benefits.  Registered religious groups and nonprofit organizations are exempt from many forms of taxation.

The law requires associations, including religious groups and NGOs affiliated with them, to obtain authorization from the Ministry of Women, Family, and Gender in order to operate.  This second registration requirement allows the government to monitor organizations operating in the field of social development and identify any interventions these organizations implement.  Foreign NGOs must obtain authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By law, religious education may be offered in public and private schools, and parents have the option to enroll their children in the program.  The government permits up to four hours of voluntary religious education per week in public and private elementary schools.  The government allows parents to choose either a Christian or an Islamic curriculum.  Parents have the opportunity to allow their children to opt out of the curriculum.

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

Government Practices

In March the government restarted a 2016 campaign to implement a 2005 law forbidding forced child begging, an abuse encountered at some Quranic schools or daaras.  The government worked closely with Muslim religious leaders to gain support for the campaign and for other initiatives, such as a draft law regulating traditional Islamic schools.

The government continued to provide direct financial and material assistance to religious groups, for use primarily in maintaining or rehabilitating places of worship or for underwriting special events.  There continued to be no formal procedure for applying for assistance.  All religious groups continued to have access to these funds and competed on an ad hoc basis to obtain them.  President Macky Sall occasionally visited and supported beneficiaries of these funds.  For example, every year members of the Mouride religious brotherhood travel to the seat of the brotherhood in Touba for the annual Magal pilgrimage.  Under President Sall, the government constructed a new highway to connect Touba with the city of Thies to the west in order to ease travel for the pilgrimage.  Although the highway was not complete in time for the Magal pilgrimage in October, the president opened up the nearly complete highway, free of charge, for all Magal pilgrims.  The highway was subsequently completed and inaugurated by President Sall on December 20.

The government continued to assist Muslim participation in the Hajj and again provided imams with hundreds of free airplane tickets for the pilgrimage for distribution among citizens.  In addition, the government organized Hajj trips for approximately 2,000 additional individuals.  The government also continued to provide assistance for an annual Roman Catholic pilgrimage to the Vatican, the Palestinian territories, and Israel.  The Catholic Church reported the government provided 380 million CFA francs ($668,000) for travel to the Vatican, compared with 370 million CFA francs ($651,000) in 2017.

The Ministry of Education continued to provide partial funding to schools operated by religious groups that met national education standards.  It provided the largest share of this funding to established Christian schools, which in general maintained strong academic reputations.  The majority of students attending Christian schools continued to be Muslim.  The Ministry of Education reported approximately 50 percent of primary school students again participated in religious education through the public elementary school system during the year.  The government also continued to fund a number of Islamic schools, which enrolled approximately 60,000 students.

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

Sierra Leone

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides that no person shall be hindered in exercising freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in a community, in public or in private, to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance.  These rights may be subject to limitations in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights and freedoms of other persons.  Although the country does not have an explicit law regarding hate speech, the Public Order Act describes as seditious libel spoken or written words that “encourage or promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different tribes or nationalities or between persons of different religious faith in Sierra Leone.”

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs is responsible for religious matters.  Religious groups seeking recognition by the ministry must complete registration forms and provide police clearance attesting that they do not have a criminal record, proof of funding, and annual work plans to receive tax concessions.  There is no penalty for organizations that choose not to file for recognition, but registration is required in order to obtain tax exemptions and waiver benefits.

The constitution provides that “except with his own consent” (or if a minor the consent of the parent or guardian), no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony, or observance relates to a religion other than the person’s own.  The mandatory course, Religious and Moral Education, provides an introduction to Christianity, Islam, African traditional beliefs, and other religious traditions around the world, as well as teachings about morals and ethics, and is required in all public schools through high school, without the choice to opt out.  Instruction in a specific religion is permissible only in schools organized by religious groups.

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

Government Practices

On January 8, the country has constitutionally mandated political parties monitor, the PPRC, ordered CDP leader Musa Tarawally to remove his campaign posters and billboards stating, “Allah is One” as its election campaign slogan across the country.  The PPRC cited the constitutional prohibition against political parties using any motto that has exclusive or significant connotation to members of any particular tribal or ethnic group or religious faith.  The president of the IRC, which includes Muslim groups, publicly supported the action of the PPRC, stating, “People must not use the name of Allah to gain cheap popularity in politics” and “Religion is religion and politics is politics.”  According to the PPRC, this was the first time since independence in 1961 that a party positioned itself as an Islamic party using Quranic verses as its campaign slogan.

The government continued to enforce a law prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana.  Rastafarians continued to state they viewed this prohibition as an infringement on their religious freedom to access cannabis, as it is a core component of their religious practices.  One Rastafarian high priest was arrested in August, his marijuana was seized, and he was detained at a correctional facility for five days.  Another community member was apprehended by police in September for possession of cannabis and was released on bail.

The Office of National Security (ONS) held several meetings with the IRC and the Council of Imams as part of its counterterrorism strategy but did not organize a formal event, reportedly due to lack of funding.  The ONS continued to express concerns regarding the possible emergence of what it referred to as Muslim extremism.  The ONS also reported concerns by Christian and Muslim leaders and civil society groups relating to susceptible unemployed and uneducated youth from the Muslim community joining the Tabligh movement, a revivalist Sunni Muslim movement originating in India preaching a fundamentalist form of Islam.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”

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

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

According to a Washington think tank, in October the government issued a law regulating the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).  The new law grants the Awqaf additional powers, including the establishment of a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist or deviant thought.  The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Wahhabism.”  The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight over the country’s religious affairs.

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

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

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

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

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

An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation.  Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant.  There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews, who are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.

Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction.  Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.  If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government.  An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.

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

Government Practices

There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population.  The government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

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

According to the COI, multiple human rights organizations, and media reports, the government and progovernment forces used weaponry incapable of adequately discriminating between civilian and military targets in densely populated areas, used chemical weapons, and deliberately denied humanitarian aid.  In April the government and progovernment forces launched a massive assault on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, culminating in the government’s recapture of an area it had besieged since 2013.  SNHR compiled a list of 1,473 civilians killed in the offensive, most of whom were Sunni Muslims.  During the battle for East Ghouta, according to UN and press reports, the government resumed chemical weapons attacks on civilians, with bombing in the predominantly Sunni Damascus suburb of Douma involving the possible use of sarin that killed at least 70 civilians.  The government and progovernment forces subsequently launched an assault on opposition-controlled areas of Daraa Province and reasserted government control in July.  The government’s military victories in the Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa resulted in the forced displacement of mostly Sunni residents.  The government forced them to relocate primarily to opposition-held Idlib Province due to its suspicion that they were supportive of the opposition.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry, SNHR, and Syrian human rights activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the regime.  Analysts said this was evidenced by population shifts in Homs.  Groups such as SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature.

According to numerous reports, government and partner forces, including Iranian-backed Shia militias composed mostly of foreigners, killed, arrested, and physically abused individuals in attacks on opposition-held territory as part of their effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups, as well as terrorist groups, and to intimidate Sunni communities that might support opposition groups.  According to SNHR, the civilian death toll for 2018 was 6,964, including 4,162 killed by government forces and Iranian militias.  The COI stated Sunnis accounted for the majority of civilian casualties and detainees.

Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to arbitrarily detain tens of thousands of citizens without due process.

The SNHR report noted that arbitrary arrests of individuals have been made in the country on a daily basis since the start of the conflict for “exercising one of their basic rights such as the freedom of opinion and expression, or because they were denied a fair trial, or because they were detained after their punishment had ended.”

Human rights groups and opposition activists stated the majority of detainees the government took into custody were Sunni Arabs.  The UN and human rights organizations reported the continued detention and disappearance of individuals who appeared to be predominantly Sunni Muslims.  According to an SNHR report, the government used “enforced disappearance” and secretly arrested more than 95,000 Syrians since 2011.  The report stated that detainees were subject to torture intended to “inflict serious physical damage or cause severe pain for numerous purposes, whether to extract information, for retaliation, or to cause panic among detainees.”  According to the report, 13,608 individuals died from torture between March 2011 and August 2018.  The vast majority of tortured and executed prisoners were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition.  The SNHR report stated that at least 7,706 arbitrary arrests were made in 2018.

The SNHR report stated that the government was responsible for at least 87 percent of all arbitrary arrests; nonstate actors also engaged in this practice.  In most cases, victims’ families could not accurately identify the entity that made the arrest, since Iranian militias, the predominantly Shia Lebanese Hezbollah, and all other progovernment forces were able to engage in arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

Over the course of the summer, government officials released death notices of prisoners held in government detention facilities.  SNHR stated that the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown, but it was estimated to be in the thousands.  The SNHR noted the government delayed announcing those detainees certified dead until years later as a way to punish the victims’ families.  In its review of the notifications, the Washington Post wrote that the notices were of detainees who died between 2013 and 2015, with the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslim.

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

In May Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 would lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and would create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home.  HRW said it would be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirements of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population.  Subsequent to the law’s passage in April, an October report by HRW detailed how the government began preventing mostly Sunni displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties without warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation.

According to multiple press reports and human rights organizations, the vast majority of refugees and displaced were Sunni and viewed with suspicion by the government.  Other human rights organizations joined with HRW in observing that the government could potentially use Law No. 10 to engage in abuse and discriminatory treatment of mostly Sunni displaced residents and residents from areas previously held by opposition forces.  They stated they feared Law No. 10 would be used to reconstruct religious demographics.  According to the Carnegie Endowment of Peace, significant numbers of the Syrian refugee population indicated that they were unlikely to return if they were unsure of being able to repossess their house or property.  According to refugee and human rights organizations, 70 percent of refugees lacked the basic identity documents needed to claim property.  The organizations stated that mostly Sunni displaced individuals without the proper documents required to claim property ownership feared persecution, arbitrary arrest, or mistreatment by the security services.

According to HRW, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants residing in Iran to assist the government in its conflict against armed opposition groups.  HRW reported Iran had supported and trained thousands of Afghans to fight in the country as part of the Fatemiyoun Division since 2013.  HRW and other sources estimated the size of the division to be up to 14,000 fighters.  The Washington Post reported most Afghan fighters of the Fatemiyoun Division were refugees or migrants living in Iran, and hundreds came from poor, ethnic Hazara communities near the Iranian border, as well as other regions of Afghanistan.  According to analysts, the use of Shia fighters from as far as Afghanistan as soldiers in an armed conflict against a mostly Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.

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

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports.  In addition, Hezbollah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

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

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

Media and academic experts said the government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance.  The official state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on the government’s fight against “takfiri terrorist organizations” throughout the year (a group is defined as takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim group as apostate).  An August 14 SANA article, referring to a Roman-era historic site destroyed in the civil war, was titled “Zein El-Abidine Palace in Daraa stands witness to Takfiri terrorist crimes.”

According to international media reports, leaders from a number of minority religious groups, such as representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities as well as prominent Druze activists, continued to state the government had their support because it protected them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to warn the Sunni population against communications with foreign coreligionists that it described as communication for the purpose of political opposition or military activity.  For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the international religious hierarchies governing some religious groups.  It continued to prohibit, however, contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.  SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”  The government repeated its claim a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s conflict.  In response to an alleged Israeli airstrike in July, the government stated “the Zionist enemy returned in its desperate attempts to support defeated terror organizations in Daraa and in Quneitra.”

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

SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in damage or destruction of places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques.  Additionally, the government conducted targeted attacks against places of worship the regime claimed were occupied by armed actors.  SNHR documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  On January 31, for example, government helicopters dropped barrel bombs near al Omrai al Kabir Mosque in Kafr Amim village, causing moderate damage to the mosque and its furnishings.  On February 27, government forces shelled Um Habiba Mosque in Douma city, partially destroying the mosque and putting it out of operation.  The government continued to state the mosques it targeted were being utilized by opposition forces for military purposes.

Jews generally were barred from government employment and did not have military service obligations.

The COI and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, the U.S., and other governments, such as ISIS and HTS, targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.

As of the end of the year, forces comprised of a coalition of 79 partners and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.

ISIS was reduced to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year; it no longer governed large populations, and was limited in its ability to subjugate religious groups and subject them to harsh treatment.  It continued, however, to operate and target individuals on the basis of religion on a smaller scale.  ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law.  In late July, for example, ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze population in the city of Sweida.  The attacks left more than 250 people dead and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was later executed.  Al-Qaeda affiliated groups also lost significant territory, and at year’s end were mostly limited to the Idlib Governorate and had limited ability to target religious groups outside of their areas of control.  On September 7, al-Qaeda-linked rebels fired several missiles at the predominately Christian town of Mhardeh, according to multiple press reports.  The missiles killed at least 10 civilians and seriously wounded 20 others.  The charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported that on January 22 rebels bombed Bab Touma, the Christian district in Damascus, leaving 12 dead and 35 injured.  ACN also reported that in early January shelling by rebels caused damage to the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate office in Bab Touma.

Many rebel groups self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis.  Armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law.  Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for other religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as of June, Hezbollah had between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters in Syria, its largest deployment outside of Lebanon.  CSIS reports stated the bulk of Hezbollah’s forces and proxy militias were deployed along the Lebanese-Syrian border, where there were large numbers of Shia communities and shrines – and near Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah also deployed fighters around Damascus and Homs, and as far east as the Deir al-Zour Governorate in the Middle Euphrates River valley.

Hezbollah participated in the military campaigns against the mostly Sunni Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa, which resulted in thousands of casualties.  Sources reported that Syrian soldiers and government-affiliated militias seized homes in these areas after “reconciliation” agreements forcefully displaced previous inhabitants, who were mostly Sunni Muslims.  The May COI report detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a “reconciliation process” as a condition for remaining in their homes.  The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to healthcare personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters.  In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government and served as a government strategy for punishing those individuals.

ISIS regularly targeted and massacred Shia Muslims, and used its media arms to target, demonize, and incite violence against Shia.

Numerous sources stated ISIS also targeted Christians throughout the country.  Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians and other minorities in areas under its control to pay a protection tax – 164,000 Syrian pounds ($320) per person, according to a Christian organization – convert to Islam, flee, or be killed.

Starting in 2014, ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as numerous Christian and Turkmen women, and brought them to the country to be sold as sex slaves in markets or given as rewards to ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of the captives’ religious beliefs.  According to numerous sources, ISIS fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions.  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated SDF liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.

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

HTS continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity.  HTS and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF.  HTS replaced government courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities.

In January the Turkish army, along with Turkish-opposition groups, including elements of the FSA, launched an air and ground campaign against the YPG-held enclave of Afrin.  The attack allegedly was designed to clear out Kurdish YPG fighters from the border region.  According to the United Nations, the press, and human rights organizations, approximately 167,000 people, mostly Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, were displaced.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis and forced them to convert to Islam and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.  In the aftermath of the conflict, Turkish forces implemented a resettlement policy by moving displaced Sunni opposition forces and their families into the empty homes that belonged to displaced people, comprised mostly of religious minorities.

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

HTS and affiliated groups continued to use schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control.  In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by HTS, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs.

In September multiple news outlets reported that the SDF shut down 14 Syriac Christian schools in the cities of Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Al-Malikiyeh for their refusal to implement a new school curriculum that required courses to be taught in the Kurdish language.  The schools were administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church diocese and had been in operation since 1935, serving Assyrian, Armenian, Arab, and Kurdish communities in the area.  School officials accused the SDF of attempting to “erase” Syriac history and culture and imposing a Kurdish nationalist curriculum.  In September journalist Soulman Yousph was arrested and detained for five days following an article he wrote criticizing the SDF for closing down Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church private schools.  The Kurdish authority and the local Syriac Orthodox archbishopric eventually reached a deal that allowed the schools to reopen.  Samira Haj Ali, head of the Kurdish authority’s education authority, said the agreement ensured students in the first two grades followed a Syriac version of the Kurdish region’s curriculum.  In exchange, the agreement allowed students in classes three to six to follow the Damascus education curriculum with extra Syriac language classes available.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion, and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies.

The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order and organizing of armed groups is prohibited.  The constitution states, “The citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character.”  The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” encouraging religious enmity.  In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict, as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.

The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power.  This definition includes inciting religious hatred.

The law defines any group of persons who join for religious purposes as a religious association.  The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law.  In order to operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs.  In order to register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons over the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years.  The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home address and date of birth.  The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage.  It must also provide documentation on the health of its adherents.  A religious association must provide information on its religious centers such as mosques, central prayer houses, religious educational institutions, churches, and synagogues.  The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.

A religious community is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship and the satisfaction of other religious needs.  Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and places of worship.  A religious community functions on the basis of a charter, after registering with the CRA without forming a legal entity.  The nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter.  Religious communities are required to register both locally and nationally and must register “without the formation of a legal personality.”  A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.

A religious organization is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship, religious education, and spreading of religious faith.  Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses religious education entities, churches, and synagogues.  Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters.  They can be a district, city, or national organization.

The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charter, and assigns responsibility to the CRA for handing down fines for such activities.  The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration; violating its provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association.  For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 350 to 500 somoni ($37 to $53), heads of religious associations 1,000 to 1,500 somoni ($110 to $160), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,000 to 10,000 somoni ($530 to $1,100).  For the same offenses repeated within a year of applying first fines, fines are increased to 600 to 1,000 somoni ($64 to $110) for individuals, 2,000 to 2,500 somoni ($210 to $270) for heads of religious associations, and 15,000 to 20,000 somoni ($1,600 to $2,100) for registered religious associations.  If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

In late 2017 parliament amended the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which entered into force in January.  According to these amendments, restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion are allowed only to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.

The amended law states that freedom of conscience and worship may only be restricted for reasons such as ensuring the rights of others, maintaining public order, ensuring state security, defending the country, upholding public morality, promoting public health, and safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity.  The amendments also stipulate that no party, public or religious association, movement or group may be recognized as state ideology.  Religious activities that promote racism, nationalism, hostility, social and religious hatred, or calling for violent overthrow of the constitutional order or the organization of armed groups are prohibited.  The amended law also says that the state maintains control over the order of religious education in order to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

The amendments broadly empower the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies.  The CRA maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.

The state controls activities of religious associations related to the performance of religious rites, and developing and adopting legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations.  Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, lists of property, expenditures, numbers of employees and payments of wages, paid taxes, and other information upon request by an authorized state body for religious affairs.

The law recognizes the “special status” of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life.

The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion.  The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.

The law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations:  mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines.  The law regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques which may be registered within a given population area.  The government allows “Friday” mosques, which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time” mosques, which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000.  In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000.  The law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city, and makes other mosques subordinate to it.

Mosques function according to their self-designed charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population.  The law states the selection of chief khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers) and imams (prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA must approve the imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque.  Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA regulates and formulates the content of Friday sermons.

The law regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.  The law limits the number of guests and controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals.  The law states mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions prescribed elsewhere in the law.  The law bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and fortieth day after a death and celebrating the return of Hajj travelers.

According to the law, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language, and national dress.”  According to customary interpretation, “national dress” does not include the wearing of the hijab.  The Code of Administrative Violations does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials with religious content with the advanced consent of appropriate state authorities.  Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises to produce literature and material with religious content.  Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it.  The law allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without permission from the CRA.  According to the law, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,500 to 3,500 somoni ($160 to $370) for individuals; 2,500 to 7,500 somoni ($270 to $800) for government officials; and 5,000 to 15,000 somoni ($530 to $1,600) for legal entities, a category including all organizations.

The law prohibits children and youth under 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship.  Children may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance.  The law allows children to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to obtain CRA permission, but in practice such permission is not granted.  Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates.  Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.

With written parental consent, the law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside of mandatory school hours.  According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum.  The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn.  The law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family.  The law restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent.  To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a higher education degree domestically and be enrolled at a university accredited in the country in which it operates.  The law provides for fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($270 to $530) for violating these restrictions.

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

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on January 21, authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During a four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  A police officer followed him, pressured the hospital staff not to provide medical test results, and compelled the doctor to write a false statement denying the injuries.  On February 1, the chief of the Police Department and the chief of the Criminal Investigation Department summoned the victim and his wife for interrogation.  The police ordered the couple to write a statement declaring they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Fearing for their safety, the couple moved to another city.

According to April 22 media reports, the Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam-khatib of the Sari Sang five-time prayer mosque in Khujand, to six years’ imprisonment.  Authorities charged him with promulgating Salafi ideas.  He had studied in a Saudi Arabia madrassah from 2004 to 2006, and after returning started working in the clergy.  Police detained him in October 2017 after law enforcement seized 200 copies of banned literature from his home, which was described as extremist by the authorities.

Since 2016, the government sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  Most received religious education abroad.  Local and international human rights organizations, however, said the government suppressed opposition figures under the aegis of combating terrorism and extremism.

On April 30, Radio Ozodi, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in Ikhvon-al-Muslimin, which the government banned in 2006 as an extremist organization.  The court ruling also stated that Ahrorov preached extremist ideas to worshipers at the mosque in 2015.  The court said law enforcement officers seized illegal religious literature from Ahrorov’s home.  Police charged Ahrorov with the article of the criminal code that covers participation in the activities of political parties, public associations, and religious or other organizations banned by the court.  Ahrorov’s relatives stated he might appeal.

In December police arrested Mukhtadi Abdulkodyrov shortly after he returned to the country after working for four years in Saudi Arabia.  Sources stated that police arrested him for his ties to Salafi Islam, which the Supreme Court banned from the country in 2009.  Prior to his return from Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry contacted him through social media promising to drop all charges against him if he agreed to abandon Salafism.  Abdulkodyrov agreed and wrote a “repentance letter” to the ministry, but still faced a possible eight-year prison sentence.

In September Belarusian border guards arrested Parviz Tursunov, a former soccer player, based on an extradition request from the government.  The government sought his extradition for being a member of a Salafi Muslim group.  He and his family crossed into Belarus from Ukraine in an attempt to reach Poland and apply for asylum.  In November Belarusian officials rejected the extradition request and released Tursunov back into Ukraine.  Tursunov remained in Ukrainian custody at the end of the year.

Bakhrom Kholmatov, former pastor of the Sunmin Sunbogym Protestant Church in Khujand, remained in prison and continued to refuse to undertake a second appeal of his sentence.  His wife stated that she had visited him and he appeared well, but said prison authorities would not allow her to visit for months at a time and they did not give him letters of encouragement written to him from Christians around the world.  After Forum 18 contacted prison authorities about the letters, they said that Kholmatov was now receiving them.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on October 5, the SNSS detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  The police released eight young women, but detained the rest of the group, comprised of both men and women, for questioning before releasing all 10 late in the day.  The SNSS reportedly threatened that they shortly would be charged and prosecuted.  On January 24 and 30, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police in a settlement near Khujand summoned and interrogated more than a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses “for converting from Islam to Christianity.”  The police demanded that they renounce their faith.

On October 2, media reported that Daniil Islomov, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was sent to a military unit in Bokhtar city (formerly Qurghonteppa), after completing a six-month prison sentence for evading military conscription.  The government also denied Islomov an opportunity to perform alternative civilian service, although he was soon discharged from the army.  Stefan Steiner, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, told the media that authorities had effectively punished Islomov twice:  first with a prison sentence and second by forcing him to wear a military uniform.  In addition to his prison sentence, Islomov spent six months in pre-trial detention.  At year’s end, Islomov was in the process of filing a complaint with the UN Human Rights Council about his arrest and imprisonment.

In November an eight-year-old elementary school student and member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the northern city of Konibodom was reported to school authorities for refusing to sing the national anthem or wear the school uniform tie which contained national symbols.  He was labeled a “traitor” and threatened with expulsion.  On November 28, after complaints from school officials, police reportedly took him to a local police station without parental notification and showed him a jail cell.  The city prosecutor’s office also threatened to take action against the boy’s mother for “raising him in an unacceptable way.”  Soon after the incident, Konibodom city police opened a criminal case against the mother, but did not explain what crime she allegedly committed.  On December 11, police presented her with a written summons for questioning, but she refused to comply with the summons.

On August 21, media reported that after Eid al-Adha prayers, police detained several young men with beards near a mosque in Obi Garm town.  There was no information on the identity of those detained.

In November police detained three residents of Ruknobod village in Panjakent District, including two teenagers, on charges of cooperating with extremist groups.  Residents of the village said these three individuals were arrested for clicking the “like” button on “extremist” social media posts.

Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their groups as associations with the government.

Media reported that the government denied religious funerals for approximately 50 prisoners killed in a November Khujand prison camp riot.  The mother of one of the dead prisoners stated that authorities brought the body to a cemetery in Khujand and quickly buried it, forbidding family members to approach the coffin or perform religious rituals.  She said that police claimed the ritual had already been carried out in prison.

Government officials continued to take measures they stated would prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered extremist organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups.  Those groups included Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – IMU), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

On April 21, media reported on an April 11 public meeting in Dushanbe between General Sharif Nazarzoda, chief of the city’s Department of Internal Affairs and imam-khatibs of local mosques.  Nazarzoda warned the imam-khatibs to be vigilant about congregants’ behavior and pay attention to those worshipers who did not observe Hanafi belief or practices.  Nazarzoda also reproached the clergy for not cooperating sufficiently with law enforcement agencies in the fight against extremism.  Nazaroda reportedly reinforced his words by showing the photographs of 20 imam-khatibs in Sughd Region sentenced to long prison terms on charges of extremism.

At an August 2 press conference in Sughd, Suhrob Rustamzoda, head of the regional Department on Religious Affairs and Regulation of National Traditions, announced the dismissal of 16 imam-khatibs.  Rustamzoda stated they did not pass certification.  At the same time, he noted that the government preferred imams who were graduates of local universities.  Rustamzoda also noted that operations in all five madrassahs in Sughd Region remained suspended until the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) granted them permission to operate and they had rectified shortcomings in their documentation.  They have not been in operation since 2013.

On January 4, media reported that dozens of imams did not pass annual certification.  A commission including CRA representatives and the government-supported Ulema Council conducted examination of imam-khatibs.  The report did not specify the exact number of those dismissed.  According to the report, the government has been requiring such an annual certification for the last nine years.  Some imam-khatibs who did not pass the certification stated their dismissal was improper.  CRA stated that some imam-khatibs could not answer questions on basic rules of performing prayers in accordance with the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and could not differentiate between theology and Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh).  At a July 25 press conference, head of the department on religious associations of the CRA Husein Shokirov said that 35 imam-khatibs did not pass certification and were dismissed from their duties at mosques.  Authorities suspended the imam-khatibs from their jobs because they could not answer the questions of the certification commission; all questions were sent to the clergy 20 days in advance of the certification, Shokirov said.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.

NGOs reported authorities put restrictions on imam-khatibs, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.

On August 30, media reported police officers stopped women wearing hijabs and men with beards in Dushanbe’s Shohmansur district.  Authorities demanded that the women remove their hijabs and men shave their beards.  According to Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barbershop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.  Forum 18 also reports hijab-wearing women were consistently refused medical care and employment.  Tajik State Pedagogical University in Dushanbe announced on September 30 that female students wearing a traditional shawl covering the head could not attend lectures.

On March 2, Radio Ozodi reported that Fathullo Nazriev, imam-khatib from a five-time prayer mosque in Rasht District, sent an open letter to the country’s president in which he stated that police officers in Rasht Valley pressured him to sign a statement accusing Junaidullo Khudoyorov of being a member of an illegal Salafi group.  Khudoyorov previously criticized local authorities on social media and was arrested on January 22.

Media reported that the CRA dismissed an imam of a mosque in Panjakent for not knowing the national anthem.  Naqibkhon Qoriev, a resident of the Yori District of Panjakent who was imam of the mosque early in the year, went through certification procedures in Dushanbe in early June.  He told media on August 27 he was notified only then about the reason for his dismissal and that as a result, authorities appointed another clergyman in his place.  He stated he was flustered during the certification procedure and could not fully read a verse about rules of performing pilgrimage, but stated he knew the anthem and recited part of it.  Officials at the local Department of Religious Affairs confirmed that Qoriev was dismissed, stating he did not know the anthem and also had difficulties answering a question on rules for reading namaz (Islamic prayer).  Saidjon Shodiev, head of the Religious Affairs Department, said that Qoriev failed on two occasions to pass the certification procedures and he could again apply for certification and be reinstated in his position.

Multiple sources reported on the conversion of mosques into other facilities.  During a press conference on January 24, Chairman of Isfara city Dilshod Rasulzoda said that during 2017 the government closed down 45 mosques in Isfara due to poor sanitation.  According to the official, local residents devised a proposal to convert the mosques into social facilities, kindergartens, and medical clinics.  At a January 30 press conference, Chairman of Bobojon Ghafurov District Zarif Alizoda stated that authorities closed down 46 mosques operating without authorization in his district in 2017.  Ghafurov said the government was converting what he termed “illegal” mosques into social service centers, sewing workshops, crafts training centers, trading centers, and other types of public facilities.

During a July 25 press conference, CRA Chairman Sulaymon Davlatzoda stated that some previously closed mosques would be allowed to reopen.  According to Davlatzoda, an interdepartmental working group had been set up to review closure cases and facilitate the reopening of mosques.  “There are mahallas (neighborhoods) where two or three mosques are registered, and there are mahallas and settlements where there is not a single mosque or religious association.  The interdepartmental working group is studying all these issues, and on the results of the group’s work, appropriate decisions will be made,” stated Davlatzoda.  He also stated that when the parliament in late 2017 amended the religion law, “all religious associations had to be reregistered, but some failed to do so out of negligence… which led to the closure of some mosques.”

At a February 5 press conference, CRA officials stated that the government had converted 1,938 mosques that were functioning without authorization into cultural spaces, medical centers, kindergartens, teahouses, or residences for needy families.  Authorities often closed mosques for lack of appropriate documentation, because many mosques were not registered at relevant offices as religious organizations after they were built.  The government gave mosques a deadline to obtain proper documentation and those that failed to meet the deadline were shut down and public facilities set up at their location.  Another 231 mosques were given time to formalize all relevant documents.  According to CRA data, as of the end of 2017, 48 central Friday mosques, 326 Friday mosques, 3528 five-time prayer mosques, 67 non-Islamic religious associations, one Islamic center, and three prayer houses – a total of 3,973 religious associations, were registered in the country and all of them were functioning in accordance with the law and satisfying the religious needs of citizens.

Forum 18 stated the 2017 amendments to the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations allowed the state to restrict manifestations of freedom of religion based on a wide range of grounds not permitted under international human rights obligations, increased religious organizations’ requirements to report all activity to the state, required state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increased state control on both religious education at home, and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  Separately, representatives of a church group said the newly amended law transferred some authority from the Ministry of Justice to the CRA, which now had the right to register religious associations, control their activities, collect financial and other data, and adopt bills that could restrict (or expand) a religious association’s activity.

The government stated that it controlled religious education both domestically and of its citizens abroad in order to prevent “illegal education, propaganda and dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and enmity.”  There were reports of governmental action against students studying abroad.  At a February 5 press conference, CRA Chairman Davlatzoda said 3,694 citizens had been studying abroad at religious educational institutes.  According to the CRA, 3,377 people had returned to the country; 88 of them returned to their former places of education.  According to Davlatzoda, they went back abroad under the pretext of labor migration but in fact resumed religious studies.  Some were working again but were also studying “illegally” on the side.  Davlatzoda stated that 405 citizens were studying illegally at religious institutions in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.  According to 2017 CRA data, 60 individuals returned home from foreign madrassahs, with some of them continuing education inside the country.

On May 12, during a meeting with civil society representatives, President Emomali Rahmon stated that more than 3,400 citizens who had studied religion outside the country without authorization had returned to the country.  He said parents and relatives should actively work to prevent their children from falling prey to destructive radical, terrorist, and extremist forces.  He also noted that one of the main reasons youth attended religious educational institutions abroad in violation of the law was because some parents did not want them to have a purely secular education.

NGOs reported authorities continued to enforce the ban on “nontraditional or alien” clothing.  On February 9, the Tajikistan Times published an op-ed by journalist Abdumudassir Ahmadov criticizing the decision of the National Library of Tajikistan to prevent the entrance of bearded men.  Ahmadov said that in the past he had argued about beards with the members of the banned IRPT and asked them not to make beards a religious issue.  He stated that now he was doing the same with state agencies to stop politicizing the issue of whether or not men wore beards.

On February 26, the Khovar state-run news agency reported that the Ministry of Culture (MOC) had proposed guidelines for national dress, which were awaiting government approval.  An official from the MOC told the media the reason for creating clothing guidelines was “to prevent the impact of foreign cultures” on national traditions.  Minister of Culture Shamsiddin Orumbekzoda told journalists during a February 7 press conference that the ministry would soon publish a book about the “ethics of wearing clothes.”  He said the book was a recommendation aimed at presenting national culture and national and historical values so that citizens adequately represented their country.  He noted the book would take into account norms of both national and European clothing and that throughout the world there were certain rules and “ethics of wearing clothes.”

On March 19, the Asia Plus news agency reported that the MOC issued recommendations on women’s clothing.  The ministry published a book with sketches of female models entitled “Instruction on recommended clothes for girls and women in the Republic of Tajikistan” with guidance on how to dress for work in state agencies, for national and state holidays such as Navruz and Mehrgon, as well as for brides at weddings and family celebrations.  It also described clothing not recommended for girls and women, which included forms of Islamic dress such as hijabs.

The government continued to restrict distribution of religious literature; reportedly scheduled a major exam on a date widely anticipated to be designated Eid al-Adha; limited the numbers of those allowed to go on the Hajj; and defined acceptable practices for children attending mosques and for funeral observances.  The government continued to close for one-day national holidays in observance on both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

On June 6, the Ulema Council refuted media reports stating that the MES had decided to hold exams on June 16, the Eid al Fitr holiday.  On the following day, June 7, the Ulema Council declared that Eid al Fitr would be June 15.

On August 27, Asia Plus news agency reported that authorities set new restrictions on acceptable dimensions for graves “to prevent pomposity and the material well-being of citizens.”  CRA representatives and local authorities are responsible for enforcing the decree.

On July 3, media reported that Imam of Nuri Islom Mosque in Khujand Ibodullo Kalonzoda proposed introducing Islam into the school curriculum strictly as an academic subject.  Speaking at a roundtable entitled “Countering Terrorism and Extremism – the Main Factor in creating a Democratic and Legal society” held in Guliston in July, Kalonzoda noted that offering such a subject in high schools would be a way to counteract “distorted perceptions” of Islam.

On July 3, the Radio Ozodi website reported that the court of Norak town fined cleric Abdukarim Saidov 350 somoni ($37) for providing illegal religious education.  Authorities charged him with organizing religious education for eight children between six and 16 years old beginning in June 2017.  The children’s parents had paid Saidov 300 to 500 somoni ($32 to $53) a month along with groceries as payment.  Saidov, a graduate of the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan, told the media he did not know it was illegal to organize religious lessons for children at home.

On July 8, Akhbor news agency reported that Khairullo Najmiddinov, Mahmadayub Junaidov, and Husein Rizoev, three imams from Tojikobod District, were fined 500 somoni ($53) each for establishing an illegal madrassah at home.  The government also fined the children’s parents.

On May 17, Radio Ozodi reported that imam-khatibs in mosques throughout the country were ordered to watch the play “Obu Otash” (“Water and Fire”) by writer and playwright Mansur Surush, which, according to proponents, promoted tolerance and mocked religious fanaticism.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies.  The constitution separates the roles of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs or carrying out state functions.  The constitution states public education shall be secular in nature.  It provides for the equality of citizens before the law regardless of their religious preference.

The 2016 Law on Religious Organizations and Religious Freedom requires all religious organizations, including those that had registered previously, to register with the MOJ to operate legally within the country.  The law permits only the registration of “religious organizations,” which must have at least 50 resident members above the age of 18.  The law defines a religious organization as a voluntary association of citizens affiliated with a religion, organized to conduct religious services and other rites and ceremonies, as well as to provide religious education, and registered in accordance with the country’s legislation.

According to the law, the State Commission on Religious Organizations and Expert Evaluation of Religious Information Resources (SCROEERIR) is responsible for helping registered religious organizations work with government agencies, explaining the law to representatives of religious organizations, monitoring the activities of religious organizations to ensure they comply with the law, assisting with the translation and publication of religious literature, and promoting understanding and tolerance among different religious organizations.  The law states SCROEERIR must approve all individuals appointed as leaders of religious organizations, although the law does not specify the procedures for obtaining the consent of SCROERRIR.  SCROERRIR operates under the leadership of the grand mufti, who by law is appointed by the government, as are all other senior Muslim clerics.  The deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers for education, health, religion, sports, tourism, science, new technologies, and innovation oversees SCROEERIR’s work.

To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; a registration fee of 200 manat ($57); and the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders.  Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), MNB, MVD, and other government offices.  According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request biographic information on all the members of an organization applying for registration.  The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but does not define that term.  Each branch of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.

The tax code stipulates registered religious organizations are exempt from taxes.

The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the constitution or if SCROEERIR does not endorse its application.  The law does not specify the standards SCROEERIR uses to make that determination.  The law assigns the Office of the Prosecutor General to monitor the compliance of a religious organization with the constitution.  The law specifies a court may suspend the activities of a religious organization if it determines the organization to be in violation of the constitution.  The law also states that grounds for dissolution of a religious organization include activities “that violate the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of citizens” or “harm their health and morale.”

The administrative code covering religious organizations delineates a schedule of fines for conducting activities not described in a religious organization’s charter.

Unregistered religious organizations and unregistered branches of registered religious organizations may not legally conduct religious activities; establish places of worship; gather for religious services, including in private residences; produce or disseminate religious materials; or proselytize.  Any such activity is punishable as an administrative offense by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($29 to $290), with higher fines for religious leaders and lower fines for lay members.

The law states MOJ officials have the right to attend any religious event held by a registered religious organization and to question religious leaders about any aspect of their activities.

The administrative code stipulates penalties from 200 to 500 manat ($57 to $140) for officials who violate an individual’s right of freedom to worship or right to abstain from worship.

The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals.  According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine up to 1,000 manat ($290) or detention for 15 days.  The criminal code states such an obstruction is punishable with a fine up to 6,500 manat ($1,900) or one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home.  If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison.

The law allows registered religious organizations to create educational establishments to train clergy and other religious personnel after obtaining a license to do so.  The Cabinet of Ministers establishes the procedures for obtaining a license.  The law also states individuals teaching religious disciplines at religious educational establishments should have a theological education and carry out their activities with the permission of the central governing body of the religious organization and the approval of SCROEERIR.

Local governments have the right to monitor and “analyze” the “religious situation” within their jurisdiction, send proposals to SCROEERIR to “modernize” legislation on religious freedom, and coordinate religious ceremonies conducted outside of religious buildings.

In June the government amended the family code to ban polygamy, effective September 1.  Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 8,800 to 13,200 manat ($2,500 to $3,800).

The law prohibits the publication of religious literature inciting “religious, national, ethnic, and/or racial hatred,” although it does not specify which agency makes this determination.  SCROEERIR must approve imported religious literature; only registered religious organizations may import literature.  Registered religious organizations may be fined for publishing or disseminating religious material without government approval.  The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 200 to 2,000 manat ($57 to $570), for producing, importing, and disseminating unauthorized religious literature and other religious materials.

The law on religious freedom and religious organizations states religious customs, rituals, and ceremonies may be held on residential property, but the housing code states communal housing should not be used for activities other than habitation.

The law allows local governments, with the consent of SCROEERIR, to make decisions regarding the construction of religious buildings and structures within their jurisdiction.

Religious instruction is not part of the public school curriculum.  The law allows registered religious organizations to provide religious education to children for up to four hours per week with parental and SCROEERIR approval, although the law does not specify the requirements for obtaining SCROEERIR’s approval.  Persons who graduate from institutions of higher religious education, and who obtain approval from SCROEERIR, may provide religious education.  According to the law, citizens have a right to obtain religious education, although obtaining religious education in private settings such as residences is banned.  Persons offering religious education in private settings are subject to legal action.  The law prohibits unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious organizations from providing religious education.  The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 100 to 500 manat ($29 to $140), for providing unauthorized religious education to children.

The constitution states two years of military service are compulsory for men over the age of 18.  Per the provisions of the constitution and the law, the government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors.  Refusal to perform the compulsory two-year service in the armed forces is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison or two years of “corrective labor.”  In addition, the state withholds part of the salaries of prisoners sentenced to corrective labor in the amount designated by the court.  Salary deductions range between 5-20 percent.  The law states no one has the right for religious reasons to refuse duties established by the constitution and the law.

The constitution and law prohibit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and the law prohibits the involvement of religious groups in politics.

The law does not address the activities of foreign missionaries and foreign religious organizations.  The administrative code, however, bans registered religious organizations from receiving assistance from foreign entities for prohibited activities, including missionary work.

The law requires religious groups to register all foreign assistance with the MOJ and provide interim and final reports on the use of funds.  The administrative code provides a detailed schedule of fines – up to 10,000 manat ($2,900) – for both unregistered and registered religious groups for accepting unapproved funds from foreign sources.

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

Government Practices

According to Forum 18, during the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors aged 18 to 24 were imprisoned for refusing military service.  According to Forum 18 and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the conscientious objectors were sent to the Seydi Prison in Turkmenabat Province.

According to Forum 18, on July 11, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi.  Four of the five were reportedly held at the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison in the Karakum Desert, where, according to Forum 18, “prisoners have suffered torture and death from abuse or neglect.”  The fifth man, reportedly a former police officer or other official, was sent to a special labor camp for former law enforcement officials at Akdash near Turkmenbashi.  Forum 18 said authorities in various states in the region accused Muslims who meet to study Nursi’s works of being members of an “extremist” group named “Nurjylar” (from the Turkish word “Nurcular,” meaning “Nursi followers”); however, Muslims who study Nursi’s work denied any such group exists.

According to the Christian rights advocacy NGO Open Doors USA, in April authorities raided a house meeting of Christian converts.  They arrested everyone present, took them to the police station, and questioned them for several hours.  Police released them after questioning, but group members remained under strict police surveillance.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that because the group was not registered, officials “mistreat the Witnesses, raid their peaceful meetings, seize their religious publications, try to restrict any religious activity, and pressure them to renounce their faith.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities searched homes, seized religious literature, confiscated mobile phones they said contained religious material, and interrogated individuals at police stations.  Police also interrogated children of Jehovah’s Witnesses at their schools and forced them to sign statements about participating in religious events.  Courts fined individuals for possessing religious material.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in one case, authorities interrogated two female Witnesses, searched their apartment, seized a Bible and other religious literature, and then took them to the police station.  The officers accused one woman of being a spy, and threatened to jail her and send her child to an orphanage.  In another case, a court fined two students who had the JW Library application (which contained religious publications) installed on their mobile phones for storage and distribution of materials of religious extremism.

According to reports, prison conditions for individuals, including members of religious communities, were harsh, including overcrowding, lack of heat or air conditioning, poor food, lack of bathing facilities, and poor medical care.  Forum 18 reported the government continued to refuse to provide information on persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs.  Severe restrictions on communication with prisoners prevented Forum 18 from establishing their status, including whether they remained alive.

According to Forum 18, more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabad remained in prison, most of them held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison, accused of meeting to study and pray.  The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an international NGO, reported in its online media outlet Chronicles of Turkmenistan that in September the country rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation, made in the Universal Periodic Review of the country in May, to end incommunicado detention of prisoners, including those held in Ovadan Depe.

On July 9, the Russia-based human rights NGO Memorial issued a statement citing “a trustworthy source” as saying that authorities allowed more than 30 relatives of inmates convicted on what Memorial said were “charges of so-called ‘Islamic extremism’” to visit their loved ones in Ovadan Depe Prison on June 28.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Memorial said the government granted the visits after pressure from international human rights groups.

Forum 18 and the Russian online news agency reported that in September the government formally rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation, made in the Universal Periodic Review of the country in May, to adopt alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors.

According to Open Doors USA, “It is very common for members of Protestant churches to be regarded as followers of an alien sect aiming to depose the government – reinforcing the government’s need to control and eradicate Christians.”

In April the official daily newspaper Neytral’nyy Turkmenistan reported the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe organized a two-day seminar in Ashgabat on combating the threats of extremism and radicalism.  Various ministries and agencies took part in the seminar.  Participants highlighted what they termed the country’s unique experience with preventing youth radicalization.

RFE/RL reported that in July a deputy foreign minister met with foreign ministers from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyz Republic.  The government agreed to increase cooperation against what it termed international terrorism and religious extremism, but did not take any follow up action as of year’s end.

The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year, as compared with reregistering five in 2017.  Several religious groups stated they had submitted applications, which the MOJ returned citing administrative errors.  By year’s end, the government had not provided any new information regarding the registration process for religious organizations, and the registration process remained unclear.  According to the NGO International Christian Concern, in January six evangelical Christian churches submitted a letter to the president asking to be allowed to register as official religious communities.  In the letter, the churches requested permission to open a Christian bookstore and to obtain their own building, which the six groups could collectively share for services.  As of year’s end the government had not acted on the request.

In October the government reported there were 131 registered religious organizations operating in the country.  Of the 131, 107 were Muslim (102 Sunni and five Shia); 13 Russian Orthodox; and 11 categorized as other religious groups, including Baha’is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Local human rights activists stated MNB and MVD officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance.  The activists said the attitudes of senior government officials toward religion reflected Soviet-era practices, despite legal provisions protecting freedom of religion.  According to the Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List Country Report, which covered 2018, “The police, secret services and local authorities monitor religious activities, raid nonregistered churches and infiltrate church services.”  Open Doors USA said Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches “may also experience Sunday services being monitored.”

Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.

Unregistered groups stated their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly” in addition to fines stipulated by law.  Members of these groups said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and could do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.  According to Open Doors USA, in areas where churches have not been registered police repeatedly raided, threatened, arrested, and fined Christians.  According to International Christian Concern, some evangelical Christian church groups met secretly in cafes and restaurants.

Local religious groups continued to report that security services regularly interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities.

Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children.  Multiple groups said the government denied them permission to conduct study groups and seminars, even when it permitted them to hold weekly services.

In July the government announced it would sponsor Hajj travel for 153 pilgrims, a decrease from previous years and the lowest number since 2009.  In 2017, Forum 18 reported those allowed to join the government-sponsored Hajj group needed approval from several state agencies, including police and the MNB.  Joining the government-sponsored group cost approximately 7,000 manat ($2,000), according to Forum 18.  The government reported 2,100 persons were self-funded but did not report how many individuals applied for the pilgrimage.  As in previous years, the government allowed self-funded pilgrims to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj.

Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent them from importing religious literature and from subscribing to foreign religious publications.  Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s complex customs procedures made it extremely difficult.  The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet-era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes.  Few translations were available in the Turkmen language.  The government continued to refuse to authorize distribution of a Turkmen-language translation of the Bible printed in Russia.

Members of various religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes.  Registered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.

In September a new mosque opened in Ashgabat’s Parahat 7/3 district.  This was the first mosque built in Ashgabat in the last 14 years.  Mosques were under construction in Tejen and in Turkmenabat at year’s end.

Theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education.  The MNB reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program.  It was not possible to study theological subjects other than state-approved Islamic theology.  Women remained banned from the program.

According to members of the Protestant community, clergy in Protestant organizations continued to receive their religious education abroad or via distance learning.

The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics.  The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved in appointing their leadership, but the senior Russian Orthodox priest was required to be a Turkmen citizen.

According to Forum 18, the MVD and security services continued to place many religious believers on a “travel blacklist.”  Officials subjected persons permitted to travel abroad to close scrutiny upon departure and re-entry into the country.

According to an article published by the Alternative News of Turkmenistan website, officials at the Ashgabat airport questioned returning travelers from Turkey, particularly if they had Turkish residence permits.  Authorities questioned women wearing the hijab.  According to the article, in January one woman said authorities asked her why she was wearing the hijab, how often she prayed, whether she attended a mosque, and how long she had been practicing these religious activities.  She said the officials also questioned her about her Turkish husband’s religious practices.

The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity.  Religious groups able to obtain religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers said the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork.  As in previous years, the government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed to visit the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors it had denied.

In October the government reported religious representatives from Germany, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States visited the country at various times during the year and met with fellow believers.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion or belief, including freedom of not professing any religion.  According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society.  The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality.  The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.

The 1998 law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief.  The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.

In June the parliament approved a new law “On Countering Extremism.”  The legislation states it aims to provide for individuals’ security, protect the society and the state, preserve the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, retain peace, and provide for multiethnic and multireligious harmony among citizens.  The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism as well as extremist activities.

The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.”  It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups.  It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four million to eight million som ($480 to $960), to organize or participate in an illegal religious group.  The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison.  The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups.  Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.

By law, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).  The law states a religious organization may carry out its activities only after the MOJ registers it.  The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens ages 18 years or older belonging to the group; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local MOJ branch.

Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee.  They must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register.  The law also requires that local governments (khokimiyats) concur in registration of groups in their areas and that the group presents notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and locally selected mahalla committees.  After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and then send the documents to the CRA for review.  By law, the MOJ may take one to three months to review a registration application.  The MOJ may approve or deny the registration, or cease review without issuing a decision.

The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country and have appropriate buildings, organize religious teaching, and possess religious literature.

The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered.  The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy.  Individual clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.

The CRA oversees registered religious activity.  The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, includes ex-officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups.  It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.

The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity.  Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal.

The law restricts the activities of NGOs, the government classification for religious congregations.

The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship, as well as religious activities intended for children under 16 years old without parental permission.

The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es).  The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and MOJ representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.  Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.

The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of religious groups without state permission.  The law also criminalizes unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings, as well as literary and other study groups related to worship.  The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($1,100 to $2,220) or up to 15 days imprisonment.

The administrative code requires all religious organizations to inform the CRA, local magistrate, and the local MOJ representative one month in advance of religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies that are to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.

Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees and nonstate and noncommercial public organizations, have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police.  These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring observance of rights of citizens to religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.

The law prohibits all individuals except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations from wearing religious attire in public places.  The government does not enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire.

The law prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.  The criminal code punishes proselytism with up to three years in prison, and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.

The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials.  The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications.  Materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.  To receive a Bible, individuals must complete a “Bible application,” which is subject to government clearance before the group or individual may purchase a government-authorized version of the Bible.

The administrative code punishes “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (3,686,000 to 18,430,000 som – $440 to $2,200) for individuals.  The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage ($1,100 to $3,300).  The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.”  Courts issue fines under the administrative code.  In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages.  The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (18,430,000 to 36,860,000 som – $2,200 to $4,400) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code.  In practice, criminal code violations for religious literature are rarely applied.

The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications.  Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.  According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist, or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.

The law prohibits private teaching of religious principles.  It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors.  Children may not receive optional religious education in public schools, except for some classes providing religious information or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.

Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the MOJ and receiving the appropriate license.  Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach.  These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion or belief, or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.

The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction.  Nine madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education.  The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.

The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government.  The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam.  According to government officials, clerics from various religions, including the Shia Muslim and Jewish communities, who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.

The law allows individuals objecting to military service based on their religious beliefs to perform alternative civilian service.

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

Government Practices

According to the report issued in February by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited the country in October 2017, freedom of religion or belief was subject to excessive government regulations that prioritized security over freedom.  The rapporteur stated the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of, publicly profess, or share their religion, faith, or belief with others in defiance of its own laws and international obligations.  He said the various criminal code provisions addressing extremism captured a wide range of activities and could restrict activities protected under international law.  He also said the government imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.  The special rapporteur provided a list of 12 recommendations, which included revising the 1998 Law on Religion, simplifying registration procedures, and allowing religious education for children.

In May the parliament approved the “Roadmap to ensure freedom of religion or belief” in an effort to implement all 12 recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Shaheed.  The roadmap also included the mechanisms needed for their implementation, suggested deadlines for these actions, responsible agencies, and the expected results.  In May and September the government reduced the fee for registration of religions organizations from 100 to 20 times the minimum monthly wage (from 18,430,000 to 3,686,000 som – $2,200 to $440); reduced organizational reporting requirements from four times per year to once; and adopted the practice of suspending a religious organization’s activity only at the organization’s discretion or by a court decision.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths under the Religious Affairs Committee – including representation from the Committee on Religious Affairs and providing a platform for 16 participating religious groups registered in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to develop recommendations on religious freedom for the committee.

According to the government, 1,503 persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities, or those belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations, were serving sentences in the country’s detention facilities.  President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pardoned 185 individuals who had been previously convicted of membership in movements the government labeled extremist, compared with 399 in 2017.  NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention.

Civil society groups expressed concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad.  NGO representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity.

On September 19, the government issued a presidential decree creating a procedure for citizens to apply for release of criminal liability for joining terrorist, extremist or other banned organizations.  In accordance with the decree, citizens would be exempted from criminal liability if they had not undergone military training, did not participate in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.  The decree established the Republican Interdepartmental Commission to review cases.

Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and arrested several individuals based on their participation in such gatherings.  Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detain their members.  Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, at times without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.

During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 114 episodes of “hostile acts” by authorities against their members, affecting 233 persons, ranging from interrogations to physical abuse in police detention and threats of physical violence against family members, to home raids, unlawful searches and seizures of personal property, and employment discrimination.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 240 episodes of such acts affecting 480 persons in 2017.

According to unregistered evangelical Baptist Congregation representatives, in August the city court in Chust, Namangan Region, sentenced Pastor Alisher and his assistant Abror to 10 days of administrative detention.  Judge Bokhodir Kazakov found them and six women guilty of “illegal religious activity” for gathering at Alisher’s home.  Authorities fined the women one million som ($120) each and confiscated their mobile phones.

According to human rights groups, in August and September police and secret police officers detained up to nine bloggers in at least five regions of the country.  The bloggers had discussed a range of religious and other themes, including calls for women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques.  Courts assessed fines and jail terms of up to two weeks.  One of the Tashkent-based bloggers, Adham Olimov (also known as Musannif Adham), was fined and jailed for 15 days.  According to independent local news agencies, the bloggers were released on September 6-11.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists website and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Uzbek Service, blogger Ziyodilla Kabirov (also known as Ziyovuddin Rahim) was sentenced to 10 days’ administrative arrest and fined 184,300 som ($22).  Blogger Otabek Usamov, who wrote commentaries for the religious website, was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, on July 17, a Fergana court overturned a district court decision giving Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov a three-year suspended prison term on charges of disseminating “extremist material” and using religion to disturb public order.  According to RFE/RL, Bobojonov heads the Ezgulik (Compassion) human right group’s branch in the eastern city of Andijon.

In February two Muslim sisters, Zulhumor and Mehrinisso Hamdamova, were released after spending more than eight years in prison.  Authorities arrested them in 2009 for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  In a closed trial in 2010, the Kashkadarya Regional Criminal Court sentenced the sisters to between six and one-half and seven years in prison.  Authorities convicted both sisters under sections of the criminal code regarding attempting to change the constitutional order, holding materials threating public security and public order, and participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations.

According to Forum 18, in March Zuboyd Mirzorakhimov, a Tajik citizen, was released after serving most of a five-year sentence for possessing an electronic copy of the Quran and Islamic sermons on his mobile phone while transiting through Tashkent.  A court convicted Mirzorakhimov in 2013 under the section of the criminal code covering smuggling material to “propagandize religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.”

According to Forum 18, on January 8, in the Parkent District of Tashkent Region, a court fined Yevgeni Kupayev, his wife Natalya Kupayeva, and seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses 1,843,000 som ($220) for distributing religious literature on the street.  According to Forum 18, on February 25, police officers in Parkent District, led by Senior Lieutenant Khozhiyev, arrested Kupayev and Natalya Kupayeva, along with Aliya Sadikova and Elmira Davletshina, at a bus stop when they were returning home from sharing their religious beliefs with persons in the village of Karakalpak.  They were all released immediately after questioning.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 that police physically forced them into a patrol car and took them to the police station, where police questioned them and a male officer conducted a body search of all four individuals, including the three women.  Sadikova and Davletshina were not charged.  On March 14, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Kupayev and Kupayeva for “illegal manufacture, storage, import or distribution [of] religious materials.”  On November 9, a Tashkent court ordered their telephones confiscated and fined Kupayev and Kupayeva 10 times the monthly minimum wage each, – 1,843,000 som ($220).

In January Jehovah’s Witnesses Dilbar Odinayeva and Turabek Asadov were summoned to the Samarkand police station and interrogated.  A police officer threatened them and demanded they convert to Islam, according to congregation sources.  Authorities subsequently released them without charges.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Radjabbanu Khodzhayeva reported that mahalla representatives and four police officers in Bukhara came to her home.  They questioned her about her beliefs and demanded she start reading the Quran.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Iroda Razikovna reported that Tashkent police searched her home and interrogated her.  Police demanded she write an explanation of her beliefs and reason for leaving Islam.

Law enforcement officers raided meetings and detained participants of unregistered religious groups and social gatherings where participants discussed religious issues.  According to multiple sources, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.

According to the 2018 Jehovah’s Witnesses Country Report, on March 28, police in the village of Uzinavo in Karshi District interrupted a peaceful religious meeting of six Witnesses in a private home.  The officers conducted what the Witnesses said was an unlawful search of the house and seized a Bible and other religious literature in the Uzbek language.  Police interrogated the group at the police station until 1:30 a.m.  According to the report, police ignored requests for medical assistance from two of the women who suffered from high blood pressure.  Police released the accused after questioning and did not pursue criminal charges.

According to Forum 18 news service, on November 25, 40 plainclothes officials, including members of the National Guard, the State Security Service secret police, the MOJ, and Yashnobod District police, raided Baptist Sunday worship services in the Yashnobod District of Tashkent.  The congregation was part of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches.  Officials searched the building and confiscated approximately 7,800 items of literature and DVDs.  Forum 18 reported police took 14 individuals, including a 14-year-old boy, to the Yashnobod police station and made them wait outside in the cold while officials tried to force them to sign statements admitting to participating in “an unauthorized meeting.”  When they refused, police interrogated them for nine and a half hours.  According to Forum 18, police recorded names, addresses, workplaces, and other personal details of all the individuals present at the service and on November 27 came to the home of one of the participants for a “passport check.”  Authorities later released all individuals without charges and returned the confiscated literature.

Forum 18 reported that on November 23, police raided the home of Sharofat Allamova in Urgench where she, her two daughters, and four friends, including the pastor of her church Ahmadjon Nazarov, were having dinner.  Police searched the home without a warrant and confiscated a New Testament.  According to Forum 18, police filmed everyone present and recorded their personal details and addresses.  On November 24, Captain Mukhammad Rakhimov, head of the Urgench Police Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department, brought one of the dinner participants to the mahalla committee and tried to pressure her to accuse the host and the pastor of holding “unauthorized religious meetings” by threatening to take away her two children.  According to Forum 18, when the woman refused to sign a statement about what one officer called “illegal Christian Wahhabi activity,” police brought her mother-in-law to the station and ordered her to beat the daughter-in-law until she signed.  Forum 18 also stated police tried to pressure Nazarov to sign a statement but he refused.

According to Forum 18, on September 30, police in Tashkent raided a group of 40 Protestants meeting at a private home for a meal and Bible study.  Without a search warrant, police detained the group and confiscated Bibles and other literature, including DVDs and CDs, the group had purchased legally from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Forum 18 said police applied “psychological pressure” to the group; one woman and a five-year-old girl were subsequently hospitalized.

According to local congregation members, in July in Urgench, police officers detained seven Christian teenagers who were decorating greeting cards.  Ten security officials entered the apartment of the leader of a local evangelical Christian community, Akhmed Nazarov, where Nazarov’s wife, Elena, and the teenagers were the only individuals present.  Police confiscated a calendar with popular proverbs, six greeting cards, a notebook that contained Christian music, another notebook with Uzbek-language quotes from the Bible, and two pieces of paper with handwritten scripture.  Authorities charged Nazarov with holding an unauthorized religious meeting and destroyed all the confiscated materials.  In the entire Khorezm Region, where Urgench is located, according to Nazarov, there was one registered Protestant religious organization, commonly known as “the Korean Church.”  Nazarov told that he collected the necessary number of signatures for registration, but an employee of the regional department of the Ministry of Justice told him, “Uzbeks will not be registered.”

In April in Chimbay City, Karakalpakstan Region, local police raided an all-Christian birthday party, according to congregation members.  Police took the participants to the local police station and charged them with holding an “illegal religious meeting.”  Police released them early the next morning.  On July 13, a local judge found all the individuals who had been present except the minors guilty of engaging in illegal religious activity.  The judge sentenced all the women to pay penalties of 1,254,000 to 1,672,000 som ($150 to $200) each, and the owner of the house to pay 8,360,000 som ($1,000).  The 11 men involved were sentenced to five to seven days of administrative detention.  Later, the Superior Court of Karakalpakstan vacated the fines and returned all confiscated possessions.

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations.  Groups the government labeled “extremist” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecutions.  The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

According to human rights activists and religious community representatives, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the country).  The sources said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services.  The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.

In September the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Fazliddin Parpiev from his position at Tashkent’s Omina Mosque after Parpiev posted a video appeal to the president asking him to allow more religious freedom, including lifting the country’s ban on women’s Islamic headscarves and on men’s beards.  In his Friday sermon, Parpiev also addressed the right to mosque attendance and religious education for youth.  While the state-backed Muslim Board of Uzbekistan did not specifically mention the reasons for dismissing Parpiev, the imam told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that shortly prior to his dismissal, an official of the state’s religious affairs department had told him that “You shouldn’t have deviated from the script” – an apparent reference to his questioning state policy on Islam.  The dismissal letter, signed by four top officials of the Muslim Board, said the board’s ethics commission made the decision to terminate Parpiev’s contract.  Parpiev subsequently left the country, according to media reports.

The government stated it did not review mahalla committee decisions and activities related to religious freedom, including local registration decisions, but reports continued to state that there was ongoing coordination.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the new registration rules adopted in May and September contained many of the same obstacles to registration for all groups as the 1998 law.  According to the CRA, by year’s end the country had 2,260 registered religious organizations representing six different faiths.  Muslim religious groups operated 2,052 Sunni mosques, four Shia mosques, 15 scientific centers, and 12 educational institutes.  According to the CRA, the total number of mosques reached 2,056, compared with 2,043 in 2017, and the highest number since 1998.  The 177 non-Muslim groups include 36 Orthodox churches, five Catholic churches, 50 Pentecostal churches, 22 Baptist churches, nine Adventist churches, three New Apostol churches, two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple.  There was also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations, despite their growing numbers.  At year’s end, they had only one registered site, on the outskirts of Tashkent, which they stated did not adequately meet their needs.

Many religious group representatives reported they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, which included the need for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration, and application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality.  Their inability to register left them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.

In October Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to mahalla committees in Fergana and Karshi for permission to open a Kingdom Hall, one of the first steps of a multistep process in receiving government registration.  In Fergana, the mahalla committee categorically refused the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ request, responding “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous to young persons because of their radical views…have violated the law among Christians…[and are] forbidden in many countries.”  In Karshi, the mahalla committee noted in its rejection that there were already two registered Christian churches (a Korean Evangelical Church and Russian Orthodox Church) in the city and recommended the Jehovah’s Witnesses use those church facilities for their services.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities.  Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance the government would approve their registration application.  Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members.  In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.

Churches that previously attempted to register reportedly remained unregistered.  These included the Bethany Baptist Church, Life Water Church, Tashkent Presbyterian Church, Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, Uyushma Church, and Anapa Church in Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church, United Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; Association of Independent Churches and Union Evangelical Church in Urgench; Pentecostal Church in Andijan; and a Seventh-day Adventist church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, Miral Protestant Church, Samarkand Presbyterian Church, Our Brotherhood Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Samarkand.  Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren remained unable to register their churches after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts.

In April Jehovah’s Witness Fazliddin Tukhtayev reported visiting the Shekhonchi mahalla committee in Bukhara to seek the committee’s approval to register a Kingdom Hall.  Tukhtayev provided a presentation kit about Jehovah’s Witnesses to the committee to explain the mission of the organization and its activities.  Following the presentation, mahalla council officials filed an official complaint with police.  Subsequently, Tukhtayev was charged with production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials, and fined 1,722,400 som ($210).

For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, approximately 50 kilometers north of Tashkent.  The government offered to register a central office for the Jewish community, but members declined the offer, citing lack of funds and community interest to sustain a central office.

According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques.  The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and were not assigned registered imams.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan in the northwest part of the country because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.  There was only one registered church, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, in all of Karakalpakstan, which has a population of approximately two million persons.

Despite the Jewish community’s efforts to obtain recognition for additional rabbis, the MOJ accredited only one rabbi, a Bukharian, in 2014, and none since.  The Ashkenazi Jewish community continued to lack a rabbi.  Members of the Jewish community said the lack of rabbis limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community.  Jews continued to be concerned about the future of their congregations as the current generation of adherents either emigrated or died.

Representatives of minority religious groups stated the government continued to prohibit peaceful gatherings for worship and other religious activities in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist and imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.

In some cases, Christians remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.

Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or representatives of groups that had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered house of worship in Tashkent Region.

In July authorities fined Tashkent resident Yulduz Baltaeva 10,334,400 som ($1,200), for carrying out illegal religious activity.  Baltaeva accompanied three deaf adult men to Chirchik, the location of the only registered Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation in the country, for a religious convention.  Because the CRA did not approve the convention, the CRA determined that Baltaeva’s attendance and her assistance to others to attend constituted illegal religious activity.

Media reported security services continued to film participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques.  Parishioners at Catholic masses also reported surveillance and said authorities continued to prohibit a summer camp for children in the Fergana Valley, citing security threats.  Other communities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities.

In September Tashkent District’s department head of public education sent a letter to schools to prevent schoolchildren from attending Friday prayers and instructed that additional school events should be planned for Fridays, according to RFE/RL’s Ozodlik Uzbek Service.  According to the report, Muslims said police had begun cordoning mosque entrances and performing identity checks on youth, as well as prohibiting admission to anyone younger than 18.  Media reported police broadly implemented these measures in the Fergana Valley, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

On October 17, human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev told Forum 18 that police and the State Security Service in Bukhara openly monitored individuals who went to mosques, especially during Friday prayers.  According to Ganiyev, authorities paid particular attention to young men and boys under the age of 18.  Ganiyev stated that after they were identified, police would visit their parents’ homes to pressure them into stopping their children from attending mosques.  Ganiyev told Forum 18 that he knew of approximately 50 such cases involving men and boys from July to October.  Ganiyev said officials in Bukhara Region put less pressure on Muslim young men attending mosques during the year than in 2017.

Mahalla committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion.  Muftiate authorities stated they and mahalla committee members regularly made home visits in the mahalla’s district to check on what they characterized as a family’s spiritual needs.

The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible.  Family members of prisoners said, and UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed also stated during his October 2017 visit to the maximum security Jaslyk Prison, that prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately.  According to Shaheed, authorities did not permit inmates to pray five times a day and refused to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast.  These restrictions remained in place at year’s end.

The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses.  As in 2017, the government allowed 7,200 Hajj pilgrims, approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia.  Religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons over 40 years old.  Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the State Security Services, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims.  According to human rights groups in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it remained exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery.  A commission established in 2017 continued to review participation eligibility.  New regulations require that pilgrims apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats.  The CRA uses the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah.  During the year, the government allowed 18,000 pilgrims to travel for the Umrah, compared with 10,000 in 2017.  Beginning in September, the government removed all restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wish to travel for Umrah.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Baha’i community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school.  Eyewitnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.

Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles.  The government reported that 1,000 Qurans were made available for hotels.  Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and Qiblas, which indicate the direction of Mecca.  All airports and train stations had small prayer rooms on their premises.

According to civil society observers, authorities allowed Muslims for the second year in a row to celebrate Ramadan openly and the number of public iftars was greater than in the previous year.

The government sponsored multi-stage Quranic recitation competitions among men and women followed by Hadith (a collection of Islamic traditions containing sayings of Muhammad) competitions.

In September the minister of education issued a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools.  The government expressly forbade religious symbols of all types, such as skullcaps and crosses.  The policy continued the ban on students wearing hijab.  In September, at the beginning of the school year, authorities forced more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs under threat of expulsion, according to the BBC Uzbek service.

According to some Muslims, the ban on teaching religious principles in private resulted in the government detaining and fining members of religious communities for “illegally teaching one’s religion to another.”  They said the ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faiths with each other or to exchange ideas on matters of religion.  Some Muslims said religious discussions were considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or teaching religious principles in private.

The CRA continued to prohibit and penalize religious groups in possession of religious literature uncensored by the CRA.  Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, at times without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles.  The government continued to limit access to certain Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission.  It also continued to arrest individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be “extremist.”

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority.  According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in second hand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.

According to a Jehovah’s Witness, a number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior, NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 26 in Jizzakh, Director of the Counter Terrorism and Extremism Department Bobur Boymurodov interrogated Jehovah’s Witness Muborak Abdurakhmanova about possessing and sharing religious content.  Officials seized her mobile phone, found e-copies of religious literature and videos, and initiated administrative charges against her.  According to the report, on May 31, police officers separately detained and interrogated three Jehovah’s witnesses:  Dilyafruz Sheralyeva, Nasiba Umarova, and Sarvinov Esonkilieva.  Police inspected their mobile phones and pressured them to write statements admitting to communicating with Abdurakhmanova about religious content.  On June 3, police interrogated Jamshid Umatov and told him to provide a statement admitting that he had received religious content from Abdurakhmanova through his mobile phone.  On June 4, police also interrogated Jamshid’s sister, Dilnavoz Umatova, and told her to provide a statement.

According to congregation members, in April and May authorities raided Jehovah’s Witnesses worship meetings in private homes in Samarkand and Fergana, and twice raided a home in Karshi.  Authorities also raided Jehovah’s Witnesses homes for religious literature in Urgench and in the Yangiyul District of Tashkent Region.  After the Yangiyul search, a court fined two members of the local community 921,500 som ($110) under an article in the administrative code that prohibits production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials.

Forum 18 reported that on July 17, a Tashkent court upheld Gayrat Ziyakhojayev’s June 12 conviction for sharing texts that the lower court said contained “a threat to public security and public order,” even though he downloaded the texts from an Uzbek website that was not banned.  The court ordered his phone and computer destroyed.  Ziyakhojayev was immediately released.  According to BBC journalists, the court summoned him again prior to year’s end.

According to congregation members, in July an administrative judge in the Uchkuduk district court of Navoi Region fined Baptists Igor Zherebyatnikov and Iskhok Urazov for possessing various Christian materials, including three Bibles, one copy of “Bible Stories,” and one copy of “Stories from the Holy Scripture.”  The judge ordered the materials destroyed.

According to congregation members, in October approximately 20 officers of the Bostanlyk District police in Tashkent Region raided a group of 40 Protestants, including members of an ethnic Korean church and other Protestant churches, meeting at a Protestant center in Kyzl-Su.  Police searched the center and confiscated numerous items of church property, including a laptop computer, guitar, overhead projector, loudspeaker, three microphones, three electric kettles, music stands, a writing board, and two Christian books.  Police provided no formal record of the confiscations.

According to Forum 18, police fined persons suspected of storing authorized versions of the Bible, purchased from government stores, and confiscated them.  Forum 18 stated that on November 19, police in Pap, in eastern Namangan Region, raided a group of Protestants meeting for a meal and Bible reading in a private home.  Police confiscated Bibles, booklets, and DVDs and CDs containing Christian films, songs and sermons.  Forum 18 reported all of the confiscated literature had been purchased from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Police arrested the eight individuals and took them to Pap Police Station, where police questioned them until 3 a.m. the next morning.  The report stated police forced most of the Protestants to sign statements admitting guilt and said they might prosecute them for illegal possession of religious literature.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses online news service, between March and November the Supreme Court reversed four lower court decisions that resulted in fines for possessing Bible-based literature and electronic versions of the Bible.  According to the web site, the court of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan also reversed a lower court decision finding an individual guilty of possessing religious material and imposing a fine.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 2, police in Samarkand raided a private home where seven Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting.  Police inspected the personal belongings of all those present and confiscated an Uzbek-language book of Proverbs from one person and a mobile phone containing electronic religious publications from another.  On May 22, a court found the two Witnesses liable under an article in the administrative code and fined each of them 861,200 som ($100).

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 24, police in Samarkand raided a private home where nine Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting and seized a phone that contained electronic copies of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.

The CRA continued to block the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.

According to worshippers, authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.

Members of registered minority religious communities reported authorities continued to seize religious literature for alleged customs violations.

The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites, and to websites run by Forum 18.

The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA:  the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.

Christian groups stated they needed more than the single authorized version of the Bible in Uzbek to practice their faith.  Religious leaders said they continued to lack access to other important religious materials and texts to explain the teachings and tenets of their faiths in the Uzbek language.

According to Muslim representatives, some official imams said they could not teach Islam to children because the government forbade all religious education not controlled by the state.  In 2017 the government approved fee-based courses on the Arabic language and Quranic studies for the public, but in June it limited participation to adults.

According to the television channel Uzbekistan 24, during the first half of the year, the staff of the State Security Service uncovered 116 illegal Islamic educational institutions (hujras).  Uzbekistan 24 reported that for calendar year 2017, the comparable number uncovered was 33 hujras.  Authorities raided and closed each establishment.  In the summer, the government released a film on what it said were the dangers of underground mosques that featured a number of organized underground hujras.  According to media reports, in Andijan Region, Nosirbek Turgunov created a religious school in the basement of his house where boys 5-6 years of age studied religion.  According to the film, Turgunov locked pupils in a cramped room, deprived them of food, and applied corporal punishment.  According to the film, an investigation revealed Turgunov had had no formal study of theology.  He said his knowledge of Islam came from his parents.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites.  No Islamic religious institutions in the country could receive private funding because of a government prohibition.  In April a presidential decree established the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan.  The academy’s stated goals were to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrassahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors, improve the research and professional skills of scholars, educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith and kalam (Islamic doctrine), and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach.

The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

At a July 25 event in Washington, D.C., Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov stated the country’s “new religious policy fully acknowledges the adherence to the international standards and treaties,” but that under these treaties “religious rights are not absolute…  when it comes to public security, public order, or moral of the rights, and of the other citizens[.]”  He said religious missionary work and proselytism would continue to be banned under the new laws being created under the road map because such activities could lead to “disagreements in society” that threatened religious peace and could incite hatred among religions in his country.  At a December event in Washington, Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov said there were “some difficulties with the implementation of our [religion] laws, especially at the regional and local level, but they are all reduced to a few incidents and are not systematic in nature.”  Vakhabov also stated Uzbekistan had committed to ceasing raids on unregistered religious organizations as well as simplifying registration procedures.

State-controlled and -influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord.

In the March 29 edition of progovernment newspaper Khordik Plus, an article entitled, “Oh, miserable people … Religion is worship, not a crime!” the author said, “What about the various missionary societies?  We have not forgotten how many young people unable to distinguish between the white and the black, were fraudulently lured by them.”

An article in the June 9 edition of Khordik Plus described police officers searching the house of Anna Mologina (a Jehovah’s Witness) and her mother, Svetlana Mologina (not a Jehovah’s Witness).  Police officers seized printed literature, and authorities opened a criminal case.  The article stated that any illegal missionary activity in Uzbekistan was subject to penalty.

The March 29 edition of Khordik Plus noted that Jehovah’s Witness Matyakubova Zamira, “propagandizes” among her fellow believers.  That article stated that there would be consequences for missionary activity.

The online Russian news magazine Sputnik reported in a July 26 article entitled, “The Minister of Justice helps in ensuring interreligious peace in the country,” that Minister Davletov said missionary activity and proselytizing would lead to a comparison of religions and to social tensions and controversies.  The minister also stated, “Many foreign visiting experts say that we should remove this ban.  But this is a matter of principle for us.”

RFE/RL reported the government banned a “flash-mob protest” set for September 5 in Tashkent at which the singer known as Young Zapik had planned to debut his song “Beautiful Girl in Hijab.”  Young Zapik subsequently released the song on social media.

In October the government rescinded an order issued in March to demolish a Buddhist temple in Tashkent, the only active Buddhist temple in Central Asia and the country’s only legal place of worship for the small, mostly Korean, Buddhist community.  City authorities earmarked the temple, a tourist destination and point of interest for visiting religious officials, including the chief Buddhist monks of Burma and Thailand, for demolition to widen a city road.  The government’s reversal came after members of the Buddhist community registered a protest on the president’s virtual portal and with local area diplomats and journalists.

At year’s end, there were three public Islamic universities in the country:  the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Tashkent Islamic University, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara.  According to official figures, 593 persons were studying at Islamic universities (509 in Tashkent and 84 in Bukhara).

West Bank and Gaza

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

West Bank and the Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities.  Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordnances enacted by the Israeli Military Commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, PA law.  Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordnances enacted by the Military Commander and Israeli law and Israeli legislation.  Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordnances enacted by the Military Commander.  Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil and criminal law, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security.  Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordnances enacted by the Military Commander whenever its military enters Area A, as part of its overriding responsibility for security.  The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians due to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas:  area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.  In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally comes under PA jurisdiction.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction.  The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.”  It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation.  It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule criminalizing “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison.  Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened.  The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December and called for new elections.  The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.

There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA.  The PA observes nineteenth century status quo arrangements reached with the Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches.  The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) and Evangelical Lutheran Churches.  The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities.  The PA’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.

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

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

By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates, as well as some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use PA curriculum.  There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians.  Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religious courses.  Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank, which include religious instruction.  Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.

Palestinian law provides that in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats.  There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group.  A presidential decree requires that Christians head 10 municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for 10 West Bank municipal councils.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.”  While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.

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

Government Practices

In October Palestinian authorities detained a Palestinian-U.S. citizen Jerusalem identification card holder and investigated him for involvement in brokering the sale of Palestinian property to Jewish Israelis.  After a one-week trial, the Palestinian Grand Criminal Court found him guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign State” and sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor.  Authorities also froze his bank accounts as well as those of the owners of the property, according to media.

Israeli police and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible.  In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions.  Israeli NGO Yesh Din also reported Palestinian victims generally feared reprisals by perpetrators or their associates.  Both of these factors increased Palestinian victims’ reluctance to file official complaints, according to Yesh Din.

The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against Israeli extremists’ attacks on Palestinians and have made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through taskforces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members.  During the first six months of the year, Israeli police had investigated 115 allegations of nationalistic-based offenses committed by Israelis in the West Bank and 405 allegations against Palestinians.  In all of 2017, Israeli police investigated 183 and 609 allegations, respectively.  At the end of June, Israeli authorities had opened 35 new investigations of ideologically-based offenses and disturbances of public order by Israelis against Palestinians, compared with 29 in all of 2017.  By June Israeli authorities issued four indictments in these cases, two of which were from prior years’ investigations, while in 2017 four indictments were issued, including three from prior years’ investigations.  Offenses against property constituted 65 percent of these cases.  Israeli authorities investigated 15 cases of Israelis allegedly committing bodily harm against Palestinians.  As of the end of June, however, Israeli authorities had not investigated any cases involving Israeli stone-throwing at Palestinians in the West Bank.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 21 incidents of Israelis throwing stones at Palestinian homes and vehicles during the same six-month period.

As of October, Israeli authorities had issued 27 restraining orders against 25 Israelis from entering the West Bank and four orders prohibiting Israelis from entering specific areas in the West Bank.  In 2017, Israeli authorities issued one detention order and 55 restraining orders against 41 Israelis, including minors, prohibiting their presence in the West Bank to deter and prevent ideologically based offenses.  The Israeli government stated the special unit it established in 2013 in the West Bank’s Judea and Samaria Police District to combat nationalist crimes was fully operational, with 60 police officers, and 20 auxiliary officers.

The PA continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.  The Mufti of Jerusalem issued fatwas prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of Palestinian-owned lands to Israelis.  In April the Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council reiterated an Islamic legal ruling (fatwa) reemphasizing previous rulings that sale of Palestinian-owned lands, including in Jerusalem, to “enemies such as the state of Israel,” is forbidden to Muslims according to sharia.

Nonrecognized churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups, faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered by the PA.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by nonrecognized churches.  The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these nonrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples.  Many nonrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location.  Some converts to nonrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces.  Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs.  During the year, Palestinian authorities established a procedure for registering future marriages involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, which would also enable couples to register their children and protect the children’s inheritance rights.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis documents from a small number of churches that were relatively recently established in the West Bank and whose legal status remained uncertain.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the security barrier that was begun by Israel during the second Intifada (2000-2005), impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in the West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem.  Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship.  Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier.  Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier.  The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense, and that it was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.

In addition, Bethlehem residents said political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector.  Christians also criticized the PA for failing to better protect their communities and way of life, which was under pressure from lack of economic opportunities and other drivers of emigration.  During the year, Bethlehem had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate.  Community leaders estimated Bethlehem and surrounding communities were only 12 percent Christian, compared with more than 70 percent in 1950.

Palestinian leaders often did not publicly condemn individual terrorist attacks or speak out publicly against members of their institutions who advocated for violence.  Media and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces.  Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, terrorist organizations, and individuals glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”  Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as martyrs and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers.  The Fatah branch in the city of Tubas and the Fatah youth organization posted a photograph on March 11 of Wafa Idreis, a suicide bomber who carried out an attack during the second Intifada, and which killed one Israeli and injured 90 others.

The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinian individuals killed during the commission of a terrorist act.  The PA and the PLO also continued to provide payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism against Israelis.  These payments and separate stipends for prisoners were first initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the Oslo Accords with Israel.  President Abbas said he would use his last penny “on the families of the prisoners and martyrs.”

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

The Israeli government and the PA sometimes prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting Jewish religious sites in PA-controlled territory in the West Bank for security reasons.

The Israeli government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A).  While these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting several Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several Jewish religious sites in the West Bank, including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination.  IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety.  Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank.

Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, remained separated from the West Bank by the security barrier built during the second Intifada, and Palestinians could only access it if Israeli authorities permitted them to cross the barrier.  Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access.  Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

The IDF continued to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham.  Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared administrative responsibility for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for the site.  Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.  The IDF again restricted Muslim access on 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access on 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays.  The Israeli government said these restrictions allowed a greater number of worshipers to access the site on special days for the two faiths.  The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point with IDF security screening.  The IDF granted Jews access via several entry points without security screening.  The Israeli government said police guard posts were located at both crossings, and manned by soldiers and equipped with metal detectors.  Entrance was denied to individuals identified as posing a threat to the security of the site or its worshipers.  Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles.  The Israeli government said the road closure was to prevent confrontations.  Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF following a 1994 attack by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians.  Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron regarding the needs of Jewish worshippers at the site.

Following the September fatal stabbing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank by a Palestinian, President Abbas told Israeli government leaders that “everybody loses from violence.”  On April 30, however, Abbas spoke at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, stating the  massacres of Jews, including during the Holocaust, were related to their “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters,” and not their religion.  He issued a statement on May 4 apologizing to those offended by his remarks, condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and called the Holocaust the most heinous crime in history.

Religiously intolerant and anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media.  On October 5, the official Palestinian TV aired a speech by PA Islamic Law Judge Muhannad Abu Roomi describing Jews as “fabricators of history” who “dance and live on the body parts and blood of others.”  In another instance, a guest on a Palestinian TV program on April 10 stated that the Holocaust was a lie, and that many Jews “colluded with Hitler to create a gateway to bring settlers to Palestine.”  On December 14, Osama al-Tibi delivered a Friday sermon at the Taqwa mosque in al-Tira, near Ramallah, broadcast on Palestine TV.  In his sermon, al-Tibi said he was not able to mention all of the Jews’ despicable traits, and that “Allah … turned them into apes and pigs.”

There continued to be anti-Semitic and militaristic and adversarial content directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks as well as the absence of references to Judaism alongside Christianity and Islam when discussing religion, according to Palestinian Media Watch and the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.  The two NGOs also reported that PA schoolbooks for the 2017-2018 school year contained material glorifying terror and promoting violence.  In September media reported a European Parliament committee voted to freeze more than $17 million in aid to the PA over incitement against Israel in its textbooks.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), an Israeli government entity, exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds of other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites.  Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the ministers of culture, justice, and religious affairs.  The government stated that the IAA conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds, and the IAA was obligated by law to document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations.  It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.”

The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy from entering and working.  The Israeli government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single entry visas, which local parish leaders in the West Bank said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan.  Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications.  The Israeli government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing, and visitors from states without diplomatic relations with Israeli could face delays.  Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa renewal applicants also faced long delays.  Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy for individuals wishing to work and reside in the West Bank adversely impacted faith-based operations in the West Bank.  While clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said this policy adversely affected school teachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank.  NGOs and religious leaders said this policy did not appear to specifically target faith based organizations, but rather, appeared to be part of a broader Israeli tightening of visa issuance in response to the international “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.”  Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians in Gaza to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank.  Christian leaders said Israel issued insufficient permits to meet the full demand, and the process was lengthy and time consuming.

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

At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance, Economy, and Tourism) and the cabinet-level office of deputy prime minister for public information.

Hamas, PIJ, and other militant and terrorist groups continued to be active in Gaza.  Hamas remained in de facto political control of Gaza.

Hamas leaders continued to call for the elimination of the state of Israel, and some Hamas leaders called for the killing of Zionist Jews.  Some Hamas leaders condemned, however, the terrorist attack on a U.S. synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia, including a separate judicial system from the PA courts.  At times Hamas courts prohibited women from departing Gaza due to ongoing divorce or family court proceedings, despite having Israeli authorization to travel.  Human Rights Watch issued a report in October regarding accusation of torture and abuse of detainees in PA and Hamas detention, based on 86 cases and dozens of interviews with former detainees, lawyers, and family members.  The report included an example from 2017 of Hamas police detaining a social worker and investigating him for “offending religious feelings.”  Media reported the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza required hijabs for all females.  Gazan civil society leaders said Hamas in recent years had moderated its restrictions on dress and gender segregation in public.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law.  According to media accounts, Hamas continued to neither investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment.  Media quoted Gazan Christians as saying that Hamas generally did not impede private and communal religious activities for the Christian minority in Gaza, but continued to not celebrate Christmas as a public holiday, unlike in the West Bank.

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