The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. The government again sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. According to the Shia community, they saw no increase in ANDSF forces despite the plans; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Hindu and Sikh community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus, compared with 500-600 in 2018, fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries because of security threats and a perceived lack of government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts again did not grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 20 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 22 attacks in 2018 – causing 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured), compared with 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured) in 2018. All were attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including shooting or hanging any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. In August ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons and wounding 143 others. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several deadly attacks on religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. On June 28 in Samangan Province, the Taliban detonated a remote-controlled IED inside a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers, wounding 14 civilians. On October 18, at least 62 civilians were killed and another 58 wounded, including children, following the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Deh Bala District of Nangarhar Province during Friday prayers. No organization claimed responsibility for the attack. According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.
According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reticent to reveal their identities to anyone. One Christian citizen described being disowned by his family after they learned he had converted to Christianity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were teased and harassed in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship privately, sometimes in nondescript places of worship, to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the community continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested police support, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. In August police arrested one protester. A special committee, promised by the Ulema Council in 2018 to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam, had not been established by year’s end.
U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of what religious freedom is and why it is important, as well on the need for acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. On August 27, a senior embassy official raised preparations for 10th of Muharram with Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, including minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days, and the Ambassador used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 120 Sikh and Hindu families totaling approximately 550 individuals, down from 700 in 2018 and 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are 35 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.
The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to Article 2 of the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”
The penal code outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. According to the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts of the Supreme Court, there were no cases filed during the year. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years. Article 817 of the penal code states, “A person who insults Islam using a computer system, program, or data, shall be imprisoned.”
Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$770). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.
While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood are punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females regarding marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.
Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.
Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime, according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.
According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.
Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.
A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.
According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education (MOE) registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.
According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the MOE.
The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.
A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.
The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.
The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office. No occasion to determine if this applies to non-Muslims has arisen since the constitution was adopted in 2004.
The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.
The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.
MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. MOHRA has an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said promised government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, symbolic measures and the government had not implemented them. Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. On August 27, Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi confirmed preparations were in place that involved integrating all the security forces. The minister stated he understood that ISIS-K posed a particular threat to the Shia community. According to the Shia community, the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Media reported the government arrested a group of three ISIS-K leaders just two days before the Shia community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. Although National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces told the press these arrests thwarted attacks during Ashura, they provided no evidence these leaders were plotting to target the Shia community, and ISIS-K did not claim it had planned attacks. For the second year in a row, there were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.
As in the previous five years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.
The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages. The government set aside a number of Hajj slots for residents of each province, with the higher-population provinces receiving more slots, and with no sect-based discrimination in the distribution of slots. The government charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims continued to report they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.
MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country. MOHRA continued to estimate that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($150) from the government. Mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons, or khatibs, were paid a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($180) by MOHRA. MOHRA again estimated 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.
MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.
Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.
Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead by individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.
According to MOHRA, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were up to hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs, and because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to the ministry, there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. The government registered additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates.
Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks targeting Shia Muslims. On June 30, two Kabul University sharia law faculty members were arrested by the NDS for promoting Salafist religious ideology and actively recruiting university students for ISIS-K.
Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of unregistered madrassas available.
Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.
Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.
Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment, they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Sikhs and Hindus again reported their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.
Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.
Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish; High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili; Minister of Transportation Mohammad Hamid Tahmasi; Minister of Telecommunication Mohammad Fahim Hashimi; and Minister of Refugees and Returnees Hussain Alemi Balkhi. Shia leaders, however, continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and predominance in the country’s Shia population. Observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity.
A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, one as a presidential advisor, and one as a member of the Ministry of Transportation.
Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.
The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.
The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. Government officials said the ONSC approved, and the president signed, an interministerial strategy in mid-September; however, it was not widely publicized due to “sensitivities surrounding the issue.” According to the ONSC, it continued to work on an action plan for implementation of the policy, which was expected to be finalized before the end of the year.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the continued emigration of Sikh and Hindu residents.
According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Reportedly, the number of Christian missionaries in the country was estimated at 60, with 30 to 40 based in the capital.
According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable without what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.
Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Although Ahmadis had maintained an unmarked place of worship in past years, during the year the Ahmadis said they decided not to use it after neighbors informed police of its location. Ahmadis continued to report the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there were a peace deal with the Taliban.
Christian representatives again reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in previous years. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said the list of seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Kandahar, and Paktiya Provinces they submitted to MOHRA in 2016 remained unresolved at year’s end.
Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools were underequipped to teach students.
Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries, in addition to 500-600 who fled in 2018. Some Sikhs and Hindus reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam; in response, many noted that their communities’ residence in the country predated Islam.
Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. According to media, the Provincial Shia Ulema Council in Bamyan condemned the Bamyan Music Festival, and Shia religious leaders tried without success to stop it because the provincial governor and civil society supported the event. The Ulema also issued several statements against television programs, such as Afghan Music Star and Indian and Turkish series. In Herat, religious leaders threatened Tolo TV for recording the Afghan Music Star program in Herat, which caused the show to lower its public profile during filming.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Muslim cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.
Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, including informing the government of the conclusions of the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and the U.S. government’s recognition of August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and their ability to practice their faith. The U.S. Secretary of State hosted two Afghans at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18, including one Shia victim of religious persecution whose brother, fiance, and future brother-in-law were killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing targeting a Shia shrine.
Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.
Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials as well as the visiting Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. On January 16, a senior embassy official hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion at the embassy to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. During the roundtable, the government representatives recognized the right of certain communities, including Sikhs and Hindus, to practice their faith short of proselytizing. The embassy reaffirmed U.S. government commitment to promoting religious freedom.
The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote tolerance. On March 14, the embassy conducted a virtual discussion via the Lincoln Learning Centers with sharia law faculty at seven universities across the country on interpretation of Islam promoting tolerance in the negotiation and its importance for implementing a lasting peace agreement. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent extremism related to religion, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.
The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts. The Ambassador condemned the attacks on a mosque in Nangarhar Province and in front of a children’s madrassa in Laghman Province on October 18 and 16, respectively, through Twitter. On September 12, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, regarding recognition as one of the country’s main faith communities, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The VUSH reported, despite the State Committee on Religion’s written commitments to advocate for financial support from the government for evangelical Christian churches, the government did not allocate funds. Religious communities noted positively the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them and the work of the Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 135 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 105 in 2018, and the status of 11 additional properties was under review. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported that, through February, it rejected 150 claims for title. The law then required the ATP to send the remaining 410 pending cases to the court system. The Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) and the Bektashi community raised concerns about having to start over with their claims in the judicial system. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties. The AIC reported it had not received a permit, requested in early 2018, to build a new campus for Beder University, but Beder’s religious studies program received accreditation for another five years in November. The State Committee on Religion and the AIC reported the government did not recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The Council of Ministers still had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.
During antigovernment protests, religious leaders issued statements condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue. The Interreligious Council held several meetings domestically and internationally. The council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Albanian Center for the Coordination against Violent Extremism in May to enhance cooperation on preventing violent extremism and monitoring school texts to highlight misleading statements about religion. On March 2, the AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term, a contest that attracted significant commentary from the media regarding the candidates, allegations of foreign influence, and concerns about the process. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, joined the AIC in 2006.
U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious groups buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. Embassy officers also urged the government to recognize diplomas granted by foreign universities. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi communities, stressing the value of religious dialogue and harmony. Embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth. In August a visiting Department of State official met with faith community leaders, the Commissioner of the State Committee on Religion, and officials from the Ministry of Education to explore the relationship between religious harmony and efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional census question about religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Religion, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.
The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.
The 2016 law that established the ATP imposed a three-year deadline for the agency to address claims by all claimants, including religious groups, for properties confiscated during the communist era. As of February, ATP’s jurisdiction in these cases ceased and the law requires the ATP to forward open cases to the court system for judicial review. Religious communities must take their cases to court for judicial review, as must all other claimants.
The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion, but not the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the 1990s. The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that through September it legalized 135 religious buildings, including four Catholic churches, 71 mosques, 12 Orthodox churches, and 48 tekkes. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by ALUIZNI and those of the religious communities. The AIC reported it obtained legalization papers for 245 legalized mosques out of 850 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported that during this year ALUIZNI considered 13 of its requests for objects in Tirana and legalized two of them.
The AIC expressed concern that ALUIZNI only gave it title to the buildings and not to the land. ALUIZNI reported that it compensated the AIC with 231.6 square meters (2,500 square feet) and the Bektashi community with 1,320.7 square meters (14,200 square feet) of new land in exchange for land illegally occupied by unpermitted construction. In addition, ALUIZNI issued titles for religious buildings constructed on government or third-party land. ALUIZNI also issued titles, thereby legalizing ownership, for 1,569.7 square meters (16,900 square feet) of land to the AIC, 1,303 square meters (14,000 square feet) of land to the Bektashi, and 227.7 square meters (2,450 square feet) of land to the Orthodox Church.
The ATP reported that it rejected 150 claims for title to land and compensation through February. The ATP typically rejected claims because material documents were missing from the claimant’s file or due to competing claims for the same property, over which the courts rather than the ATP have jurisdiction. The ATP ceded jurisdiction on the remaining 401 cases to the court system, as required by law. Religious communities brought court actions on 71 of those 401 cases. The AIC, Bektashi, and the Orthodox Church expressed concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.
The AIC reported it had applied in early 2018 for a permit to build a campus for Beder University to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities, but the government has not issued the permit or explained the delay.
Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, one in Permet, and one in Elbasan, and the government legalized four tekkes and other Bektashi facilities in Elbasan. The Bektashi community reported it continued to have problems with local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, stating the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption. The Bektashi community expressed concerns that ALUIZNI had legalized nonreligious buildings on Bektashi property. The Ministry of Finance, according to the Bektashi community, did not reimburse it for the value-added tax paid for the 2016 construction of a multipurpose center at the World Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana, even though they said the law required the reimbursement. The Orthodox Church also raised concern about paying approximately 25 million leks ($31,000) in value-added tax as well as paying other taxes and fees, and stated those payments violated the agreement with the government.
The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title to properties in Berdanesh and Ksamil. The community received a favorable ruling on title for the property in Berdanesh, while the claim for the Ksamil property remained in the court system at year’s end.
The VUSH reported it had asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities but had not received an answer.
The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. The VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land.
Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which started in 2016 but stalled. They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or the postpilot plans for the project.
The State Committee on Religion and the AIC expressed concern that the government continued not to recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The AIC reported the government in November accredited the religious studies program of the AIC’s Beder University, the only university in the country offering degrees in Islamic studies, for another five years.
VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes. The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position.
The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.01 million), the same level since at least 2015. The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 29 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 23.6 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.
The VUSH continued to state that, although the organization still was unable to obtain a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, in 2018 the State Committee on Religion provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to evangelical Christian churches. Although the committee submitted a request for financial support to the government in 2018, the VUSH reported it had not received any funds.
The five religious communities expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them. The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets showed indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities, stating the government sent officials to attend iftars during election years but did not attend non-Islamic holy day ceremonies.
The Council of Ministers again did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.
A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and 40 centers. The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three. The Catholic Church has 16 foundations and NGOs, while the VUSH has 160.
In June the Office of the President and the Embassy of the Netherlands held an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana that addressed interreligious harmony as a factor in social stability and policies for managing religious diversity. In his opening remarks, President Ilir Meta said that he was proud that his country was “based on the coexistence and harmony of religious communities.”
On November 18 and 19, the Office of the President held a regional conference on advancing religious freedom, following through on a commitment to hold a follow-on, regional event after the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During antigovernment protests in the spring and summer, religious leaders from all five groups issued statements jointly and separately condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue.
On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, VUSH, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year, during which it established a section of the council focused on women and another on youth.
The AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term on March 2. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, earned a degree in theology from Al-Azhar University in Egypt and joined the AIC in 2006. He declared in his acceptance address his priority would be to preserve and strengthen interfaith harmony in the country. Observers and media deemed the election free and fair and Spahiu’s election as a victory for the continuation of the AIC’s moderate and cooperative approach to interfaith relations. The run-up to the election spurred speculation in the media that third countries sought to sway the outcome. Some members of the political opposition stated the government sought to manipulate the election. International representatives, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observed the election.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
At the November regional conference on advancing religious freedom, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom addressed the audience on religion as a means of reconciliation, gave interviews on the importance of religious freedom in Albania, and visited religious sites in the northern part of the country together with leaders of the country’s faith communities.
Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to religious sites. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi community; the Charge stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.
The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement. The success of the program led to its expansion into six additional municipalities by the end of the year.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. On May 28, prominent Mozabite (from the M’zah valley region) Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike. Fekhar was in pretrial detention following his March 31 arrest for “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices towards Ibadis. According to media reports, a court in Akbou, Bejaia fined an unnamed Christian for the “exercise of non-Muslim worship without authorization.” Two separate courts upheld acquittals of two individuals charged with “inciting a Muslim to change his/her religion” in March and “undermining Islam” in April. There were 286 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. During the year, the government closed nine Christian churches. A video posted on Facebook by the Protestant Full Gospel Church in Tizi Ouzou, described by Human Rights Watch as the country’s largest church, showed police pulling congregants from their chairs during services and forcing them outside. The then-minister of interior, after speaking of churches he ordered closed in disparaging terms, stated that the churches were unlicensed to hold Christian services. On March 17, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) informed clerics they would no longer be required to submit texts of their sermons to authorities for approval; however, MRA officials said the government sometimes monitored sermons delivered in mosques for inappropriate content, such as advocating violent extremism. The government continued to regulate the importation of all books, including religious materials. Senior government officials continued to oppose calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as “foreign” religious influences, such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work and caused the Catholic Church to cancel a bishops’ conference scheduled for September 20 in Algiers.
Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. On July 18, unknown individuals knocked over the headstone for Mozabite Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar’s grave. Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Private news outlets, including El Khabar and Ennaha, referred to Ahmadis as “sects” of Islam in reporting in June and July, respectively.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 42.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims residing principally in the province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.
The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nonprofit organization Open Doors USA, there are approximately 125,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.
Christians reside mostly in Algiers, the Kabilye region in Bejaia, and the provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable.
The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($8,400) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training … or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.
The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides a punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($420-$840) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.
The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.
The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The president appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the president on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals of the religion and a correct understanding of it. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the president.
The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, all organizations previously registered were required to reregister with the government. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The MOI’s registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters. The law requires the ministry to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all the required documentation and to respond within 60 days of submission of the completed application. The law states applicants are de facto approved if the ministry does not decide within the 60-day limit. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya (province).
The MRA has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the MOI makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.
The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, is responsible by law for facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs, the presidency, national police, national gendarmerie, and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).
The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Individuals of other faiths than Islam may hold other public offices and work within the government.
The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.
The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Muslim or otherwise, must take place. The law states religious demonstrations are subject to regulation and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. With the exception of daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques. Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant wali (governor) at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.
The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($840) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,700) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.
By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel, as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay, and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.
The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.
The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree establishes a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. This decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.
The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.
The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.
The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.
The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.
The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the president, who appoints the agency’s members.
The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.
By law, individuals who have converted from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On May 28, prominent Mozabite Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike. He had been in pretrial detention since his arrest on March 31 for “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices, such as more frequent arrests, questioning, and harsher sentences, towards Ibadi Muslims. An AP report stated that Fekhar also was known for his work on behalf of the country’s minority populations, including Christians. In late May his health deteriorated, and prison authorities transferred him to a hospital in Blida on May 27. The Ministry of Justice opened an in-depth investigation on May 29 into the circumstances of Fekhar’s death but did not release its findings by year’s end. Civil society organizations and human rights activists called for updates regarding the investigation and for charges against Ghardaia authorities to no avail.
The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine several Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in local community centers that Muslims might attend. On June 20, a court in Akbou, Bejaia handed down a 50,000 dinar ($420) fine to an unnamed Christian for the “exercise of non-Muslim worship without authorization.” The prosecutor had requested a two-year prison sentence. According to media reports, a group of Christians held Sunday services in a tent after authorities closed the EPA-affiliated “Church of Refuge” in October 2018.
Morning Star News reported on June 16 a judge gave a Christian man in Mostaganem who converted from Islam a two-month suspended prison sentence and fined him 100,000 dinars ($840). According to Morning Star News, the man invited a Christian couple to his home to pray.
According to Morning Star News, on April 17, a court in Tizi Ouzou upheld a previous court’s acquittal of Rachid Ouali, who had converted from Islam to Christianity. Ouali was one of five individuals acquitted by a court in Bouira on December 25, 2018 on charges of “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.” Ouali’s charges regarding his Christian faith were brought before a judge a second time as part of his divorce proceedings. According to Morning Star News, Ouali’s Muslim wife (who subsequently divorced him) had filed a complaint in July 2018 accusing the five individuals of having brought her to a church service and trying to persuade her to convert to Christianity.
Morning Star News reported on February 27, a court upheld an unnamed man’s December 30, 2018 acquittal of charges of undermining Islam. The man’s wife filed charges against him of undermining Islam in 2017 after he converted to Christianity.
Ahmadi leaders stated there were 286 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court as of the end of the year. Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said in some cases police confiscated passports and educational diplomas and in others employers placed Ahmadi Muslims under investigation on administrative leave. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prevented from employment. At year’s end, there were no reports of Ahmadi Muslims imprisoned on charges related to their faith.
According to the MOI, religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission and that if the ministry considered the application incomplete, it did not issue a receipt for the application. NGOs and Ahmadiyya Muslim religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt acknowledging they had submitted a completed registration application. Ahmadis reported they continued to receive no government response to their outstanding request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.
The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and is unable to meet and collect donations. Members of the community said it tried to register with the MRA and Ministry of Interior (MOI) as a Muslim group in 2012 and 2016, but the government rejected its applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in September it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not file as anything but Muslims.
In 2014, the EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church submitted paperwork to renew their registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015, but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government.
Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received an MOI confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers, such as utilities and banks, refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.
Most Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006. Other MRA officials, however, met with Christian leaders to hear their views periodically during the year, including receiving complaints about the registration process. Christian leaders continued to say some Protestant groups avoided applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process. In a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on September 18, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and the Jubilee Campaign, in association with the EPA expressed “grave concern at the ongoing closure of Protestant churches in Algeria,” and stated that “authorities continue to refuse to recognize both the umbrella organization of the Protestant churches [the EPA] and churches which requested to be registered locally.” The statement also said that the MRA “has not issued a single permit” [since passage of the law] to approve church buildings. According to the statement, this lefts churches in the country in “a legal grey zone of non-recognition, giving authorities the latitude to close one building after another.”
According to media reports and EPA statements, during the year the government closed nine churches, compared to eight church closures between November 2017 and December 2018. The government also closed one Christian bookstore. All were affiliated with the EPA. Media reported eight EPA-affiliated church closures occurred in September and October. At year’s end, 14 churches affiliated with the EPA in the provinces of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou and one non-EPA church in Tizi Ouzou remained closed.
The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes. On October 23, Minister of Interior and Local Administration Salah Eddine Dahomoune told media, “We closed 49 chicken coops and warehouses unlicensed to practice Christian rites.”
Police closed the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, on October 15. The church posted a video on Facebook showing police interrupting the service, pulling congregants from their chairs and forcing them out of the building. According to one media report, while closing the church, police hit Pastor Salah Chalah, who is also the head of the EPA, striking him with a baton. According to NGOs, on October 17, police arrested 17 Christians in front of the Tizi Ouzou governorate, where they had staged a peaceful sit-in to protest the church closure.
Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.
According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious clothing including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.
On March 17, then-minister of religious affairs Mohamed Aissa informed clerics that they would no longer be required to submit texts of their sermons to authorities for approval. MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.
MRA officials said the government continued to monitor the sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.
According to Open Doors USA, a U.S. NGO, officials from the country’s intelligence services were frequently present at church services.
On April 14, Minister of Religious Affairs Belmehdi allowed mosque management committees to meet. The previous minister had halted their work in June 2018, stating extremist groups had infiltrated the committees.
According to Catholic representatives, the government granted permits for the importation of Catholic religious texts during the year, including Catholic literature and Bibles. The EPA received import authorization for an order of Bibles and religious literature placed in 2017. Out of 10,000 books, the EPA received 2,000 Bibles and 2,600 copies of the New Testament. Both included versions in French, Arabic, English, and Tamazight. According to the EPA, it had not received details on the remaining books ordered.
Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. On January 13, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.
The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.
Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.
According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
Sources stated Christian leaders were able to visit Christians in prison, regardless of the nature of their offense.
Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups, such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.
Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. One Christian leader continued to say the government did not grant or refused 50 percent of visas requested for Catholic Church workers. As of the end of the year, three members of the Catholic Church had been waiting one year for visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. A representative from the Catholic Church reported that visa delays and refusals caused the Church to cancel its annual Regional Episcopal Conference of North Africa meeting, which it scheduled for September 20 in Algiers.
The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. The government and public and private companies also funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.
Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, religious programs countering extremism were broadcast. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.
Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.
Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.
Several Christian leaders said some citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.
According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.
In May the Algiers Herald reported Islamic scholar Said Djabelkhir called for a separation of religion and state and criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for its ideology and Saudi Arabia for its role “propagat[ing] Islamic fundamentalism.”
Media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Private news outlets such as El Khabar and Ennahar referred to Ahmadis as “sects” of Islam in reporting in June and July, respectively.
On July 18, unknown individuals knocked over the headstone for Mozabite Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar’s grave.
Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians were buried according to Islamic rites so their remains could stay near their families.
In an August report, Arab Barometer, an international research consortium focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, found “a clear divide” in the country on the role of religion. When asked if the country would be better off if more religious persons held public office, 44 percent of those polled agreed while 45 percent disagreed, effectively unchanged since a similar survey in 2013. Similarly, 42 percent of those polled believed religious leaders should have say over decisions in the government, compared with 48 percent who disagreed. More than half of those polled, 51 percent, disagreed with the view that religion should be separate from social and economic life. Overall, the poll found general support for basing the country’s laws on sharia. The NGO also found that only 15 percent of individuals between ages 15 and 29 in the country identified as religious. This represented a decline of 3 percentage points in the country’s youth since the last survey in 2017.
Some Christian leaders continued to state they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. In March the Catholic Church held an interfaith event in which an imam and Catholic priest participated in a panel together. On May 16, the National Cathedral, Notre Dame D’Afrique, held an event during Ramadan to commemorate International Day of Living Together; which Muslims and Christians attended. In September Notre Dame D’Afrique held a national cleanup day in which local citizens participated, including young Muslims.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, obtaining visas. They also raised church closures and jailed activists.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance, and in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.
In August the Ambassador discussed interfaith dialogue and tolerance while visiting the Center of Pierre Claverie in Oran, named after a Catholic bishop known for his advocacy of interreligious dialogue and who was killed in 1996. During a press conference, the Ambassador reiterated the importance of religious freedom.
Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and High Islamic Council. Visiting officials from the Department of State regularly raised religious freedom issues in meetings with civil society and government officials.
The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination. It names two co-princes – the president of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain – as joint heads of state. In accordance with the constitution, the government offers the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups. In February parliament approved the first-ever equality and nondiscrimination law, which provides for the right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination and includes a prohibition on religious discrimination. The government again did not respond to longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish groups to build cemeteries for these communities. The government issued religious work permits only to Catholics, but it allowed non-Catholics to reside and perform religious work in the country under a different status.
In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community rented two prayer rooms. The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community.
The U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona continued to meet and communicate regularly with senior government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Social Affairs and other government officials. During visits to the country and periodic communications, consulate officials discussed with Jewish and Muslim leaders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) issues such as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 86,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). The local government does not provide statistics on the size of religious groups, and there is no census data on religious group membership. Government officials report that approximately 92 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Muslim leaders estimate their community, largely composed of recent immigrants, has approximately 1,500 members. The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members. Other small religious groups include Hindus, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Baha’is, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution “guarantees freedom of ideas, religion, and cult.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution states such freedoms may be limited only to protect public safety, order, health, or morals as prescribed by law or to protect the rights of others. The constitution acknowledges a special relationship with the Catholic Church “in accordance with Andorran tradition” and recognizes the “full legal capacity” of the bodies of the Catholic Church, granting them legal status “in accordance with their own rules.” The Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain, is one of two constitutionally designated princes of the country, who serves equally as joint head of state with the other prince, the President of France. The current Bishop of Urgell is Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia, whose diocese includes Andorra.
On February 15, parliament approved the first-ever equality and nondiscrimination law, which provides for the right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination, including for members of any religious group. The law establishes judicial, administrative, and institutional guarantees, which protect and provide compensation for victims of discrimination. The law also provides for fines of up to 24,000 euros ($27,000) in cases of discrimination, including on the basis of religious affiliation, and stipulates the burden of proof in such cases rests with the defendant, who must demonstrate there has not been discrimination. In addition, the law calls for establishment of an Equality Observatory to monitor and assess the state of equality and nondiscrimination in the country but does not specify how this institution would work with the national ombudsman.
Faiths other than Catholicism do not have legal status as religious groups. The government registers religious communities as cultural organizations under the law of associations, which does not specifically mention religious groups. To build a place of worship or seek government financial support for community activities, a religious group must acquire legal status by registering as a nonprofit cultural organization. To register, a group must provide its statutes and foundational agreement, a statement certifying the names of persons appointed to the board or other official positions in the organization, and a patrimony declaration that identifies the inheritance or endowment of the organization. A consolidated register of associations records all types of associations, including religious groups.
The national ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, including those involving a religious motivation, in the public and private sectors. The ombudsman makes recommendations to the public administration to correct problems and reports annually to parliament.
The law governing the issuance of official documents such as residence permits, passports, and driver’s licenses requires individuals to appear and be photographed with their heads uncovered.
According to the law, municipalities are responsible for the construction, preservation, and administration of cemeteries and funerary services.
Government regulation permits ritual slaughter as required by the Islamic or Jewish faith, as long as it takes place under the supervision of the veterinary services of the country’s slaughterhouse.
Instruction in the Catholic faith is optional in public schools. The Catholic Church provides teachers for religion classes, and the government pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education also provides space in public schools for Catholic religious instruction.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Catholic Church continued to receive special privileges not available to other religious groups. The government paid the salaries of the eight Catholic priests serving in local churches and granted all foreign Catholic priests citizenship for as long as they exercised their functions in the country.
Government officials at the national or local levels continued not to respond to longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish community representatives to allow the construction of a separate cemetery for each where they could bury their dead according to their rituals and traditions. Jewish and Muslim groups said they did not raise the cemetery issue again during the year but were waiting for a government response to their earlier requests. According to municipal authorities, Jews and Muslims could use existing cemeteries, but these did not allocate separate burial areas for these communities to use. As a result, most Jews and Muslims continued to bury their dead outside the country.
The government continued to fund three public Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level. These were open to students of all faiths. Catholic instruction was mandatory for all students attending these schools.
The government continued to maintain a policy of issuing religious work permits for foreigners performing religious functions only to members of the Catholic Church. Foreign religious workers belonging to other groups said they could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and carry out religious work without hindrance.
According to the national ombudsman’s office, it did not receive any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination or intolerance in the public or private sector during 2018, the most recent year for which data were available. The principal religious groups said they had not reported any incidents of discrimination to the ombudsman.
At year’s end, the government had not yet established the Equality Observatory or defined how it would operate or coordinate with the national ombudsman.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community relied on two Islamic prayer rooms that it rented in Andorra la Vella and in Escaldes Engordany.
The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking members of that community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, the Consul General in Barcelona, and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in periodic in-person meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Attorney General, Office of the Head of Government, and ombudsman, and in regular communications. Consulate General staff discussed the equality law with representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, and continued concerns about the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior and Justice officials.
In periodic communications and meetings with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities and NGOs, consulate general officials discussed the lack of legal status for religious groups other than the Catholic Church and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution provides the government will grant the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. Several religious groups expressed frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups in order to be eligible for tax-exempt status, receive visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities, noting that the Catholic Church was exempt from this requirement. The government continued its investigation into the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center and a subsequent cover-up, reiterating demands for Iranian cooperation in bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice. Legal action continued against Tucuman Province over the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Santiago Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province. Government officials sponsored and participated in interfaith events throughout the year, including an interfaith iftar, at which then-foreign minister Jorge Faurie emphasized the country’s prioritization of coexistence among religions.
On February 25, at least five individuals broke into the house of Grand Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich in Buenos Aires, beating him and causing injuries that resulted in his hospitalization for one week. The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites, and DAIA stated the spike tracked with an increase in news stories about the Jewish community during the year, including an institutional crisis that led to the resignation of DAIA’s president. In October protesters opposed to the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. In July religious groups, including the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and the Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric, organized the National Table for Interreligious Coordination (MECIN). In March the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic (CIRA), AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, including within the Secretariat of Worship and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination. Embassy outreach efforts included regular meetings with government officials and religious and community leaders to discuss the status of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism. In August the Ambassador gave keynote remarks on countering online hate speech and discrimination based on religion at a conference in Tucuman Province. On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. Eighteen other diplomatic missions participated in the event, and the Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice, and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 45.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Religious demographic and statistical data from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research centers, and religious leaders vary. According to a 2019 survey by Conicet, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown. Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population. According to AMIA, there are 220,000 Jews in the country, and the Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000. Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available. There is also a small number of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions in the country; however, no data are available on the size of these groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith. It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.
The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies. The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA. Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the General Inspectorate of Justice.
Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit. Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.
The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.
Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.
The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
At year’s end, the trial of former president and current Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner remained pending, following her 2017 indictment for concealment in relation to a 2013 memorandum of understanding she signed with Iran. Prosecutors stated that then-president Fernandez de Kirchner and several high-ranking officials sought to cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 persons. AMIA, DAIA, and organizations representing the victims’ families continued to call for justice and a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the bombing and any attempts at a cover-up, stating that the truth remained unclear.
In an unrelated case, a court acquitted former president Carlos Menem in February of charges he had sought to derail investigations into the AMIA bombing while president, citing lack of evidence. AMIA and DAIA issued a joint communique stating they respected the verdict. An NGO representing many of the victims’ families, Memoria Activa (Active Memory), criticized the decision, stating the Menem government knew the attack would happen and did nothing to avoid it.
Judicial inquiries continued into the 2015 death of Alberto Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor investigating the AMIA bombing. On December 26, the newly appointed Minister of Security, Sabina Frederic, announced her intent to review a 2017 analysis by the National Gendarmerie that stated two assailants killed Nisman. The analysis contradicted expert Federal Police testimony made in 2017 that suggested Nisman had committed suicide. Investigators accused Frederic of using the power of the executive branch to meddle in judicial matters, while Nisman’s mother, Sara Garfunkel, requested the judiciary’s assistance in preventing the review.
In September at the UN General Assembly, then-president Mauricio Macri called for increased international pressure to compel Iran to cooperate in the investigation of the AMIA attack, as well as that of the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Representatives of several religious groups stated that a government requirement that religious groups register first with the Ministry of Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, stating that the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were required to request tax-exempt status, apply for visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities. Religious group representatives said religious groups deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.
According to the plaintiffs, there was no progress in the 2018 case filed by a group of parents in Tucuman Province opposing the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. The parents cited a 2017 Supreme Court decision that incorporation of religious education in public schools in Salta Province was unconstitutional. In August local media reported on a new case of religious teaching in a school in Formosa Province in which the school director invited a group of nuns to speak to a class during school hours without permission from the regional ministry of education or from the parents of the children. Parents said the nuns proselytized by teaching the children to pray and distributing rosaries and pamphlets. Formosa’s education minister later stated the school’s director made an error and could face disciplinary action.
Numerous religious and prolife groups, including evangelical Christian churches, expressed concern over the case of a doctor arrested for refusing to perform an abortion. In October a court in Rio Negro Province gave Leandro Rodriguez a suspended sentence of one year and two months for misconduct and prohibited him from practicing medicine for two years and four months, after he did not perform a legally permitted abortion for a woman who had been raped. In 2017 Rodriguez treated a woman suffering from severe pain and an infection after taking misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug in her fifth month of pregnancy. Rodriguez treated the infection and halted the abortion. Three months later, the woman delivered the baby and offered it for adoption. Rodriguez’s legal team said he had halted the abortion on medical grounds and the patient had agreed to continue the pregnancy and give the baby for adoption; however, some religious groups, including local evangelical churches, said the case set a precedent against abortion-related conscientious objection.
At the end of its term in December, the Macri administration sent a new draft religious freedom bill to congress for its consideration. First proposed in 2017, the draft bill would have eliminated the requirement that non-Catholic religious groups register with the government to receive the same benefits accorded to the Catholic Church. An earlier draft of the bill allowed for conscientious objection on the basis of religion, but drafters did not include that provision in the new bill. Separately, the outgoing congress approved a draft bill in November that would declare November 25 the National Day of Religious Freedom and Conscience. The bill continued under senate review through year’s end.
Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following the December 2018 agreement between the government and the CEA, representing the Catholic Church, which delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. CEA leaders reported progress on the matter during plenary sessions held in November. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from 130 million pesos ($2.2 million) in 2018 to 126 million pesos ($2.1 million) during the year.
Throughout the year, Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province in elections held in October. Among other incidents cited by the organizations, in a July 2 televised interview Cuneo promoted conspiracy theories about a purported Jewish plot to take over Patagonia. He also repeated claims, first made in 2018, that then-president Macri had staffed the national intelligence agency with Mossad agents.
Many Jewish groups said they continued to view relations with the Macri administration as positive and productive. They said collaboration was positive, particularly in light of what they characterized as the administration’s commitment to resolve the Nisman killing and to pursue justice in its investigations of the 1994 AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy.
Secretary of Worship Alfredo Miguel Abriani, the human rights secretary, the Buenos Aires director general for religious affairs, and other government representatives continued to host and attend religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches.
In May the MFA organized an interfaith iftar; both then-foreign minister Faurie and then-secretary of worship Abriani delivered remarks underscoring the importance of tolerance and coexistence, as well as the government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom.
On August 21, the City of Buenos Aires organized a lunch to promote interfaith collaboration. Approximately 50 religious leaders attended. Buenos Aires Chief of Government Horacio Rodriguez Larreta pledged to continue “generating spaces for engagement and exchange” and affirmed his desire to create a city that would be ever-increasingly open and inclusive.
On September 15, the City of Buenos Aires organized an interreligious festival to promote dialogue. More than 70 faith communities participated with stands showcasing their respective identities and activities.
In September INADI reported it organized a youth parliament with local students. Playing the role of legislators, the students debated the topics of conscientious objection, mandatory religious education, and religious discrimination. By a vote of 69 to one, with one abstention, they approved a law on “freedom of religion without discrimination,” promoting religious diversity in education, health, and the workplace.
In May DAIA held a Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Kirchner Cultural Center in downtown Buenos Aires. Then-minister of culture, science, and technology Alejandro Finocchiaro delivered remarks alongside Jewish community leaders and a Holocaust survivor, underscoring the value of life and of “rebellion,” adding, “glory and eternal memory for all who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto and around the world.” Then-president Macri did not attend the ceremony but recorded a video for it after touring the building earlier in the day.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
DAIA reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017, a 107 percent increase. The report noted that 30 percent of the incidents occurred in May 2018, when DAIA faced a very public institutional crisis that led to the resignation of its president. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites and social media, which made up 88 percent of the reported acts. Included among these were xenophobic and nationalistic commentaries, as well as the propagation of conspiracy theories and references to Jewish individuals as avaricious or exploitative. Other recorded acts included graffiti, verbal slurs, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.
Between April and June, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducted a survey to update the understanding of attitudes and opinions toward Jews in 18 countries around the world. In November the ADL released the results of the survey for each country, detailing the scope of anti-Semitic views among the country’s residents. The survey cited 11 stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they agreed with them. The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was as follows: 57 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Argentina; 53 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; 60 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust; 36 percent that Jews do not care what happens to anyone but their own kind; 28 percent that Jews think they are better than others; and 35 percent that other persons hate Jews because of the way they behave. According to the survey, 30 percent of the population harbored anti-Semitic views – compared with 24 percent in 2015 – which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that the majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”
On October 13, protesters associated with the 34th National Women’s Meeting and others attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. Some protesters also threw stones at police and churchgoers. According to local media, the cathedral suffered minor damage because of the protest. Some protesters carried signs accusing the church of covering up sexual abuse. On April 29, hundreds of individuals delivered a new abortion bill to congress. On May 28, abortion activists led peaceful protests outside the congress, proposing the new abortion bill go before the legislature. In 2018 the senate rejected the previous abortion bill.
In February nine gravestones in a Jewish cemetery were vandalized by unidentified individuals in San Luis City. The cemetery’s security cameras were vandalized and broken shortly before the incident. The attackers climbed the wall, destroyed marble headstones, bronze plates, and other objects. On September 29, individuals destroyed a large section of the wall at La Tablada, the country’s largest Jewish cemetery, located near Buenos Aires. They also damaged several tombs and stole bronze plaques. Then-secretary for human rights Claudio Avruj denounced the vandalism; he expressed his sadness and indignation, stating the events took place just hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.
According to local media, individuals broke into the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute in San Luis, San Luis Province, in early October, leaving behind anti-Catholic graffiti, including “Murderous Church,” “Pedophile Priests,” and “God Does Not Exist.” School authorities reported the individuals destroyed images and paintings of the Virgin Mary, as well as student artwork.
Interreligious groups such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges. The committee published frequent newspaper articles and held events to include a prayer for Syria and an annual blanket drive for families in need.
In July several religious groups organized MECIN at the senate in Buenos Aires. Participating groups included the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric. MECIN representatives said they would seek to strengthen the country’s social fabric through dialogue.
In March CIRA, AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis. The declaration, an updated version of a similar document signed in 2005 by then-archbishop Jorge Bergoglio and his peers in the interreligious community, affirmed the commitment of all involved not to permit religious conflicts from other parts of the world to affect the fraternity among religious communities in the country.
In June the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue organized an iftar during Ramadan, hosting members of the Muslim community and the Jewish Bet El congregation. Religious and community leaders including the president of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina, the president of AMIA, and the City of Buenos Aires’ director for religious affairs attended.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with government representatives, including within the Secretariat of Worship, the MFA’s human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed tolerance, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination. In meetings with the Secretariat of Worship, embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and discussed the status of the AMIA case and ways to counter anti-Semitism.
Embassy outreach included regular meetings with religious and community leaders, including members of interreligious organizations. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, as well as the conditions; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism and promote religious tolerance. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs focused on social work and community service, including Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and evangelical Christian leaders, and discussed promoting respect for religious diversity as well as faith-based responses to poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and malnutrition.
On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. The event was held at the Ambassador’s residence, and 18 fellow diplomatic missions participated in the event. The Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack.
Embassy officials regularly attended conferences, observances, and commemorations organized by religious groups and NGOs, including DAIA, AMIA, Latin American Jewish Congress, and the CEA. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media, including conveying condolences on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing.
The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. According to the Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child With A Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The 2018 dismissal of a police officer for being a member of a religious organization triggered a Constitutional Court review of the laws prohibiting police officers’ membership in religious organizations. There were reports the government arbitrarily enforced the law, targeting police officers affiliated with minority religious groups. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke about the importance of freedom of religion and established a working group to review AAC-government relations, the public-school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, and other issues. Some AAC representatives objected to the review, describing the process as a threat to Armenian national identity. In September, built with private funds on private land, the world’s largest Yezidi temple opened in Aknalich Village, Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan spoke at the inauguration, stating, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people.” Some Yezidis interviewed at the celebration said the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction.
Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were again societal incidents of verbal harassment towards the group’s members, to which authorities responded promptly and appropriately. There were 16 reported instances of verbal harassment, compared with 12 in 2018. In November an AAC priest published an article on an AAC website, where he discussed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” He stated, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.” Societal and family pressure also remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than Armenian Orthodox.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to discuss the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation – bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government. In September the Ambassador, with national and local government officials, celebrated the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes in Meghri, Syunik Region. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to convey messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Orthodox. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in 2018, 94 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent Catholic (includes all rites), 3 percent other, and 1 percent none. A May IRI poll listed 94 percent of the population as Armenian Orthodox, 4 percent other, and 1 percent none, with no mention of Catholic affiliation. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.
According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health, and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred. It allows conscientious objectors to military service to perform alternative civilian service.
The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers; however, there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.
The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.
By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.
To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.
The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($420) to detention for up to two months.
The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments.
The law prohibits police and employees of the NSS, the service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, penitentiary service, and rescue service from being a member of a religious organization; however, the law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits members of police, military, and NSS, as well as prosecutors, customs officials, diplomats, and other national, community, and civil servants, from using their official positions for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them. The law also prohibits police, prosecutors, and other state and civil servants from conducting other religious activities while performing official duties. While the law defines a “religious organization” as an association of citizens established for professing a common faith as well as for fulfilling other religious needs, it provides no definition for “religious associations.” A military service member may not establish a religious association. If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during military service.
The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.
The law allows the AAC free access and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.
The law mandates public education be secular and states, “Religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. While adding a history of the Armenian Church (HAC) course in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.
The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of their teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities, but not within the premises of state educational institutions.
The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees.
The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months, or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position, and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($420 to $1,100) to prison terms of between three and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in Armenia. He was arrested and charged in 2017 and held under pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in July 2018. Local NGOs and human rights lawyers shared concerns about the surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest, which they believed was approved in violation of the law because it violated lawyer-client privilege. In April the Baha’i community filed a countersuit against the NSS with the Court of Appeals, stating the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil a Baha’i community member and the community’s office and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. According to the documents provided to the Baha’i community, the surveillance authorizations were approved based on the assertion that Manasyan was the head of a “religious-sectarian” organization and was “soul-hunting,” but no charges were proffered on these grounds.
Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11. There were anecdotal reports that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.
Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. According to the December Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with a Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia prepared by local NGOs, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced a number of challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The report identified schools, and HAC classes in particular, as the main setting where the right of minority children to freedom of religion was frequently abused. According to the report, in addition to obliging children of religious minorities to learn about and discuss religious beliefs other than their own, the class often included religious practices such as group prayer, Bible reading, the presence of church clergy in the classroom, school trips to religious sites, and participation in religious celebrations and ceremonies. The report identified widespread discriminatory attitudes as another obstacle to the realization of freedom of religion for minority children, including the usage of “Yezidi” as an insult. According to the report, Yezidi children tended to conceal their identity from teachers and classmates to avoid discrimination. This behavior occurred most often in schools in Yerevan and other locations where Yezidis are a small minority.
Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross, reportedly occurring during those classes, and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. The Ministry of Education again stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda. According to various minority religious groups, the personality of the teacher was the crucial factor in the treatment of minority children in class. Christian groups reported no egregious cases of classroom discrimination. Cases that Christian groups considered as minor, such as perceived unfavorable treatment of a student by a teacher because of the student’s religion, were resolved between parents and schools, according to those groups. Most religious organizations said classroom discrimination was likely more common in the regions outside Yerevan where they said tolerance for religious diversity was less common.
NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity. There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year (September-May), AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in less than 1 percent of all schools. According to official information provided to the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), AAC priests taught the HAC course in six schools, four public and two private.
According to media reports, the government’s plans to review the HAC curriculum and possibly replace it with a broader History of Religions class spurred heated debate, with more traditional groups describing the plans as an attack on Armenian identity and stating the course was needed to stop the spread of “sects.” On November 4, Prime Minister Pashinyan in a live Facebook broadcast discussed the issue of the HAC course, questioning the separate teaching of AAC and general Armenian history classes. In an interview with RFE/RL Armenia, AAC Chancellor Bishop Arshak Khachatryan said the position of the AAC had not changed and that in the Church’s opinion HAC should remain a separate course. In the same media report, historian Vahram Tokmajyan said the ongoing discussions around the HAC were a “fake agenda,” since before any substantive changes could be made to the school curriculum, new official educational objectives had to be adopted, a lengthy process expected to last until 2021-2022. Some observers said the discussion of the HAC course was being used by government opponents to manipulate public opinion.
According to the EPF, the following phenomena connected with the HAC course raised concerns: performing religious rituals or elements of religious rituals during classes; preaching and sowing hatred against religious organizations other than the AAC; equating religious and national identity; sowing intolerance toward other opinions; and hindering creative and critical thinking. According to some minority religious groups, a similar intolerance of religious groups other than the AAC, including slurs insulting minority religions, also occurred in universities.
Based on a Ministry of Education program launched in 2012, school administrations continued to have the option to include an additional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four. During the new school year, 74 schools followed this option, the same number as the previous year.
According to the government, as in 2018, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit. The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.
According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited penitentiaries seven, four, and 17 times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year for spiritual conversations with convicts.
On March 12, Epress.am, an independent online news outlet focused on human rights, published an article entitled “The Army Converts Atheists.” The article reprinted a copy of a questionnaire, initially posted by a Facebook user and reportedly distributed in military commissariats to be completed by future conscripts. One of the questions was: “Religious affiliation: if you belong to or are affiliated with any religious sect, belief, faction, or organization. You must also indicate since which year, as well as which of your family members belong to this or another belief. If not, fill in as a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.” The government did not respond directly to the news item but stated the Ministry of Defense did not organize discussions or seek information on the religious affiliations of conscripts.
On February 19, the Center for Religion and Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration, requesting the 2017 decision reducing her classes be rescinded, the number of classes she taught restored, she be paid back wages, and the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds be acknowledged. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher had become a subject of discrimination based on her religion after the parents of students had accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The parents initially stopped allowing their children to attend her classes, stating they feared she might indoctrinate them. The acting principal temporarily restored the teachers’ hours despite community pressure, including the threat that he would not be elected principal on a permanent basis unless the teacher was removed. As of early December, the teacher continued to teach at the school, and the acting principal had managed to convince the parents to send their children to her class.
According to the Center for Religion and Law, in October 2018, the national chief of police dismissed longtime police officer, Edgar Karapetyan, on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. According to local observers, the same legal restrictions were not enforced for AAC members. The Center for Religion and Law appealed the dismissal to the Administrative Court and requested Karapetyan be reinstated, paid back wages, and that the court acknowledge he had been subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. The Administrative Court suspended the hearings and appealed to the Constitutional Court to determine if the relevant provisions of the law on police service complied with the constitution. On September 13, the Constitutional Court accepted the appeal. The court did not rule on the case by year’s end.
There were reports from other minority religious groups that their members were discriminated against in seeking public employment. Some individuals employed by public offices or law enforcement said they were afraid to make their religious affiliation known at the workplace or attend church services because they feared losing their jobs if they did so.
Even though there was no mechanism for enforcement of the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.
At year’s end, 129 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 123 in 2018. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals; local utility companies; park maintenance services; and facilities such as boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms).
On January 29, Prime Minister Pashinyan established by decree a working group on government-AAC relations. The prime minister’s chief of staff led the working group, which included deputy ministers of justice, defense, education, and other ministries and agencies, as well as five representatives of the AAC, including Chancellor of the AAC Bishop Khachatryan. Prime Minister Pashinyan and Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II co-chaired the group’s first meeting on May 3. The prime minister noted AAC’s unique role in the preservation of national identity and stated that the working group would review relations between the state and Church and discuss issues such as taxation and the mandatory teaching of the HAC course in schools.
On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan participated in an EPC regional conference held in Yerevan entitled “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” The prime minister emphasized the government’s commitment to religious freedom. In his welcoming speech he stated, “Freedom of religion, freedom to believe in God is first of all the freedom of an individual to believe in himself.”
During Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s participation in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington D.C in July, he stated, “Armenia became a safe haven for a number of vulnerable religious minorities, particularly Yezidis and Assyrians. Today Yezidis are the strongest minority group in Armenia, and we are very proud that the biggest temple of this ancient people very soon will open in their Armenian homeland.”
On September 29, the world’s largest Yezidi temple, Quba Mere Diwane, opened in the small village of Aknalich in Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Mirzoyan said at the opening, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people. The children of the Yezidi people have been standing beside their Armenian brothers at many fatal and heroic moments.” Many Yezidis interviewed at the celebration stated the opening of the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction. A private venture maintained by the family that funded its construction, and sited on private land, the temple attracted tourists during the year in addition to serving as a site for Yezidi funerals.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to observers, extremely offensive anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. Some posts commented on a “Turkish-Masonic-Jewish” conspiracy aimed against the Armenian people.
On November 26, an AAC priest published an article entitled “Sects” on the website of one of the churches of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese, where he discussed several religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” According to the priest, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.”
A minority religious group reported that an AAC priest, who in September 2018 blamed the “evangelical sect” for the country’s loss of statehood in the past and accused it of working with the country’s historic enemy, the Turks, continued to enter public schools during the year. The priest urged students not to attend Sunday schools organized by evangelical Christian churches, even though the AAC had reportedly advised him not to provide such advice.
According to media analysts, private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the former government ousted in 2018 continued to use religious issues to denounce the government. According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used various websites, controversial blogs, local troll factories, false Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC).
The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party. According to Word of Life representatives, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church. On April 8, the prosecution charged Iranian-Armenian dual citizen Armen Abi in this case; the investigation continued through year’s end.
There is one Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, serving all Islamic groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials raised reported discrimination against minority religious groups, including religious education in schools. Embassy officials monitored the trial of the Baha’i charged and facing prosecution on what the group stated were religious grounds.
The Ambassador regularly met with representatives of the government, political parties, social groups, and religious minorities to discuss problems of discrimination faced by religious minorities, foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups, and explore cooperative solutions to those problems. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government to discuss issues of concern and foster a dialogue among the groups.
On September 17, the Ambassador and national and local government officials marked the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project in Meghri, Syunik Region. Launched in 2016, the project involved the preservation of the most critically endangered parts of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes, painted in the unique Persian-Armenian style.
The Ambassador met with leaders of the AAC and engaged them on the importance of supporting the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions.
Embassy officials attended conferences and discussions on nondiscrimination, national religious minorities, and religious tolerance regularly hosted by the EPF, including a regional conference held in Yerevan titled, “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” Embassy officials participated in the EPF Annual Media Award jury and February 26 ceremony to support religious tolerance in media.
In October embassy officials visited an Assyrian village in Armavir Region and in December the new Yezidi temple in Aknalich Village. They held regular meetings with representatives of the AAC and religious and ethnic minorities, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as meeting with individual Muslims. In these meetings, embassy officials and religious group representatives discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, including minority religious group concerns. They also met with civil society groups to discuss concerns about the HAC course taught in public schools, as well as the importance of respect for religious freedom in the country.
The embassy used social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to send messages supporting religious diversity and tolerance.
The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. In August the government released draft religious freedom laws whose stated aim was to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. Some religious groups criticized the legislation as inadequate for not explicitly recognizing a positive right to freedom of religion, and for providing inadequate protections for religious groups engaging in commercial activities, such as retirement villages or youth camps. Some civil society groups said the draft legislation would give too much weight to religious views and would weaken existing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTI) people and those from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. The government responded with a second draft in December, and invited further public comment. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which had two senators in the federal parliament, called for a travel ban for certain countries until a solution can be found to “first, second, and third generation migrants who violently reject Australia’s democratic values and institutions in the name of radical Islam” and for limits on some Islamic practices. The Catholic Church opposed state and territory laws requiring priests to report evidence of child abuse heard in confession.
In August a Muslim woman reported being assaulted while on public transportation in Melbourne, and in November another Muslim woman, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy, was attacked by a man who reportedly yelled anti-Muslim hate speech. Two incidents of anti-Semitic bullying at Melbourne-area schools received widespread media attention during the year. Four incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in east Melbourne during the year, as well as similar vandalism in other cities. Unknown perpetrators painted anti-Muslim graffiti on the car of a Muslim family in Western Australia days after the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings.
The U.S. embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included well-publicized engagement with members of the country’s Uighur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 23.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, with Roman Catholics (22.6 percent of residents) and Anglicans (13.3 percent) comprising the two largest Christian groups. Muslims constitute 2.6 percent of the population, Buddhists 2.4 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, Sikhs 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent of the population either did not state a religious affiliation or stated affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.
Revised figures from the 2016 census indicate that indigenous persons constitute 3.3 percent of the population, and that there are broad similarities in the religious affiliation of indigenous and nonindigenous individuals. In 2016, less than 2 percent of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional indigenous religions or beliefs. Fifty-four percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 36 percent report having no religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing a religious test for a federal public office.
The right to religious freedom may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination may have recourse under federal or state and territory discrimination laws and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. In Queensland, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, freedom of religion is protected in statutory human rights charters. The antidiscrimination laws of all states and territories, with the exception of New South Wales and South Australia, contain a prohibition against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. New South Wales prohibits discrimination on the basis of “ethnoreligious origin” and South Australia protects individuals from discrimination in employment and education on the grounds of religious dress. Complainants may seek redress through state and territory human rights bodies.
Religious groups are not required to register. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO compliance procedures. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors taken into account when determining its tax-exempt status.
State and territory governments share responsibility for education policy with the federal government, and generally permit religious education in public schools covering world faiths and belief structures. Instruction in the beliefs and practices of a specific religion may also be permitted, depending on the state or territory. In some jurisdictions this instruction must occur outside regular class time, while in others alternative arrangements are made for the children of parents who object to religious instruction. Thirty-five percent of students attend private schools and 94 percent of these schools are affiliated with a religious group.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In August Attorney General Christian Porter released draft religious freedom legislation for public feedback. After receiving almost 6,000 written submissions, in December the government released a second draft for further consultation, with public submissions due by January 31, 2020. The government stated the purpose of the draft legislation was to prohibit discrimination on the ground of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life and create a new office of the Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The proposed legislation would implement several recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom and would be consistent with a pledge by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to enact religious freedom legislation. Media commentators linked this pledge, and the debate surrounding religious freedom issues, to pledges made during the passage of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in 2017.
The government’s draft legislation explicitly would not create a positive right to freedom of religion, and the attorney general described the laws as a “shield” to protect people being discriminated against, rather than a “sword” allowing discrimination against others. Religious freedom advocates expressed concern that the laws would not provide a positive right and would neither override current laws in state jurisdictions that they said infringe on religious freedom nor prevent doctors from being compelled to refer patients to receive abortions, contrary to their religious beliefs. Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Martyn Iles, expressed concern there would be insufficient protection for religious speech, citing as an example a 2015 case in which Catholic Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous was referred to Tasmania’s antidiscrimination tribunal over the publication of a booklet advocating the Church’s position on same-sex marriage. In response, the revised draft released in December would protect religious institutions from discrimination claims when “engaging in good faith in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion…”
According to news reports, the Sydney Anglican diocese rejected the legislation as originally proposed, citing inadequate protections for religious entities engaging in commercial activities, such as retirement villages or youth camps, and warning of unintended consequences. The reports stated that in response, the government’s revised draft proposed strengthening the ability of religious bodies (including hospitals, retirement homes, and accommodation providers) to give preference to persons who share their religion.
Some civil society groups criticized the draft for giving too much weight to religious views at the expense of other rights. Public submissions by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre warned the laws could permit discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and disability on the grounds of religion. LGBTI advocates raised concerns that the legislation would grant “religious exceptionalism” by giving new privileges to religious individuals while overriding existing protections from discrimination for others. Advocacy group Equality Australia CEO Anna Brown said the revised draft would “establish double standards in the law, allowing religious organizations the ability to discriminate against others with different or no belief.”
The draft laws would ban large businesses with a turnover of more than 50 million Australian dollars ($35.1 million) from setting codes of conduct that indirectly discriminate on the grounds of religion, unless the business can prove it would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business.” Attorney General Porter said these provisions would provide protection for individuals in circumstances similar to those of Israel Folau – a well-known rugby player whose contract with Rugby Australia was terminated in May after he posted on social media that “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters.” Many religious freedom advocates supported Folau, including the Australian Christian Lobby, which raised more than two million Australian dollars ($1.4 million) to fund Folau’s legal defense. In December Folau and Rugby Australia reached a settlement, which media reported involved an apology and an eight million Australian dollar ($5.6 million) payment to Folau.
In response to the pledge made in late 2018 by Prime Minister Morrison to remove religious schools’ ability to expel LGBTI students, in April Attorney General Porter tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into religious exemptions in antidiscrimination legislation. The commission is due to report its findings in December 2020.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party had two senators in the federal parliament and maintained a platform calling for a travel ban for certain countries until a solution can be found to “first, second, and third generation migrants who violently reject Australia’s democratic values and institutions in the name of radical Islam.” They also called for limits on some Islamic practices. Senator Fraser Anning (originally elected as a member of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party before later founding his own Conservative National Party) lost his bid for reelection in May. Anning blamed immigration of “Muslim fanatics” for deadly attacks on New Zealand mosques by an Australian shooter in March. Following the shooting, Anning released a widely criticized statement saying that “while Muslims may have been victims today, usually they are the perpetrators” and said the attacks highlighted growing fear “of the increasing Muslim presence.” Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party received 1.28 percent of the senate vote in his home state of Queensland in the May federal election.
In September the Victoria state parliament passed laws requiring priests to report suspicions of child abuse discovered through confession. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter (including persons in religious ministries) fails to report abuse to authorities. Catholic leadership in Victoria indicated the Church would refuse compliance, with Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli saying he would rather go to jail than report admissions of child sexual abuse made during confession. Other priests and Catholic leaders made similar pledges to defy mandatory reporting laws. One Sydney parish priest reportedly said he expected “the church throughout [Australia] will simply not observe” the new laws. In September 2018, Catholic leaders said they would not accept a recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to lift the seal of confession regarding child sex abuse. The Church stated that the recommendation impinged on religious liberties and that it would not change its tradition of keeping confessions confidential. The laws in Victoria followed similar legislation introduced in South Australia (2017), Tasmania (2018), Western Australia (2019) and the Australian Capital Territory (2019).
In March Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison following his December 2018 conviction by a Melbourne court of five sexual offenses committed against two 13-year-old boys in 1996. Pell maintained his innocence. In August an appeals court dismissed his appeal. In September Pell sought to appeal to the country’s highest national court. In November the court granted permission for Pell’s appeal.
The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 56 complaints on the grounds of religion from 2018 to October 2019, a 21 percent increase from the previous year, and the highest number of complaints in three years. Complaints relating to employment under the Equal Opportunity Act and Racial Religious Tolerance Act increased from 22 in 2016/17, 23 in 2017/18, and 28 in 2018/19.
The government continued to provide funding for security installations – such as lighting, fencing, closed-circuit television cameras – and for the cost of employing security guards, in order to protect schools and preschools facing a risk of attack, harassment, or violence stemming from racial or religious intolerance. This funding was available at both government and nongovernment schools, including religious schools.
Due to what they stated was an increasing numbers of students in New South Wales (NSW) public schools who do not identify with a religion, some education groups advocated for the removal of Special Religious Education classes from high schools. The NSW Teachers Federation and the Secondary Principals Council stated that religious education was “a parenting responsibility, not an educational responsibility.” Government-approved Special Religious Education providers include representatives of Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religious groups. The NSW government requires schools to provide “meaningful alternatives” for students whose parents withdraw them from Special Religious Education, which may include education in ethics. As of the end of the year, Special Religious Education remained in place in NSW public schools.
The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful, continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion and included religious freedom as a component.
The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer and then the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional. The Australian Greens and other groups continued to call for the practice to end.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In November a man in Sydney punched and trod on a Muslim woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy in what was described as an unprovoked and “Islamophobic” attack by a leading Australian Islamic association. The man was arrested and charged with “assault occasioning actual bodily harm and affray” and denied bail. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils said the man was heard “yelling anti-Islamic hate speech at the victim and her friends.”
In August a Muslim woman reported being assaulted while on a train in Melbourne. She stated she saw an assailant harassing another Muslim woman when she stepped in to help. The assailant turned on her, tried to take off her hijab and continued to threaten her. The assailant was later charged with unlawful assault.
Two reports of anti-Semitic bullying received widespread coverage during the year. A photo circulated on social media that appeared to show a 12-year-old Jewish student being forced to kiss the shoes of a Muslim classmate at a school in Cheltenham, a suburb of Melbourne. A second incident occurred in a Melbourne primary school in which a five-year-old Jewish student was subjected to insults including “Jewish cockroach.” The parents of both boys withdrew them from their respective schools, expressing disappointment at the lack of response to protect Jewish students on the part of school administrators
In January in Melbourne, the neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance defaced an aged care home catering to Holocaust survivors with swastika stickers bearing the group’s name. In July also in Melbourne, unknown perpetrators spray painted a Jewish-owned cafe with a swastika twice in one week. In both instances there was also graffiti painted denying the Holocaust. Internet reviews of the cafe included anti-Semitic comments. The same month “Hitler Youth” and “Hitler was right!” was scrawled on walls in east Melbourne. In September fences on a walking trail in Melbourne were defaced with swastikas and two “anti-Jewish messages.” All four instances took place in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. In February 20 swastikas were painted over a mural at Bondi Beach in Sydney.
Anti-Semitic vandalism appeared during the May federal election campaign. In Melbourne and Sydney, several Jewish candidates had their campaign posters defaced with swastikas and “Hitler moustaches.” In Sydney, a Jewish candidate was alerted to a letter being distributed opposing her candidacy and claiming Jews were spreading disease. Several non-Jewish candidates’ election posters were also defaced with swastikas.
In March West Australian police reportedly launched an investigation after anti-Muslim graffiti was painted on the car of a local Muslim family. The incident occurred within days of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings.
According to media sources, indigenous followers of a foreign-born Christian missionary in the Aboriginal community of Wangkatjungka set fire to indigenous artifacts considered sacred by many local elders. The missionary said she did not instruct the converts to burn the artifacts, but said she supported their actions.
A sample exam paper for Year 12 students in Victoria schools stated that Israel persecutes Arabs by demolishing their homes because “they don’t follow the Jewish religion.” The local Jewish community protested the statement saying it was false and could fuel anti-Israel sentiments. Although a school official initially defended the statement, the sample exam paper was later recalled and reissued without the statement.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 368 anti-Semitic incidents of threats or abuse during the year, compared with 366 the previous year. According to the council, there was a marked increase in more serious categories of incidents, including direct verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation (114 in 2019, compared with 88 in 2018) and graffiti attacks (95 in 2019, compared with 46 in 2018).
Uighurs accused Chinese government authorities of harassing and intimidating members of their community in Australia. Members of the Uighur community told journalists they had been contacted by individuals claiming to be Chinese government authorities demanding personal details. Community leaders said these calls began in March, following protests aimed at highlighting the plight of China’s Uighurs. Uighurs in Adelaide told the Washington Post they believe their activism led to the imprisonment of relatives in China. An official from the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the Government was aware of “concerning reports” of Uighur residents being asked questions by the Chinese government and has raised the matter with Chinese authorities.
Prior to the federal election in May, Christian Schools Australia sent flyers to parents of students encouraging them to vote in the election. The flyer stated the election was “the most critical for religious freedom in living memory.” The flyer did not tell parents for which candidate to vote.
Prior to the federal election in May, members of the Muslim community expressed concern about anti-Muslim sentiment among 10 political parties and urged people not to vote for those parties. They stated the parties supported policies that would regulate the country’s mosques, ban Muslim immigration, and seek to end what they described as the “Islamization of Australia.”
In July a judge convicted three ISIS supporters who set fire to a Shia mosque in 2016. Two of the men were sentenced to 22 years in prison while the other was sentenced to 16 years. The justice who sentenced the men said their crime was an attack on religious freedom that was “impossible to excuse.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Officers from the embassy and consulates general met with government officials from federal and state departments of social services and multicultural affairs to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance programs.
In March officers from the Consulate General in Melbourne initiated contact with Adelaide’s Uighur community, the country’s largest and most active Uighur diaspora group. Leaders from the East Turkistan Australian Association detailed Chinese Communist Party harassment of their families and the wider community in Australia.
In March officers from the Consulate General in Melbourne met with a group of young Assyrian Christian refugees recently resettled from Iraq and Syria, who shared details of their persecution and trauma in their birthplaces, their experiences as refugees, and their relief at being welcomed to the country.
In April officers from the Consulate General in Melbourne took part in a roundtable with the Board of Imams Victoria organized by Mohammed Elrafihi, a former participant in a U.S. government exchange program. The Consul General underscored the importance of collaboration and continued community outreach in building cohesive communities.
Officers from the Consulate General in Perth highlighted the start of Ramadan on social media, which was reshared by the Australian Arab Association.
In July the embassy sponsored the participation of Rana Hussain in U.S. government exchange program aimed at leadership in a multicultural society.’
In August the Ambassador met with individuals from the Uighur community in Adelaide, and in a newspaper interview directly following the meeting, the Ambassador said, “I thought it was past time to meet with them face-to-face to express the support from the United States Government for the Uighur community, and to better understand their particular concerns, the pressures they’re under. Not only by the Chinese Government in China, but also by the Chinese Government in Australia.”
In August the Consulate General in Perth sponsored the visit of a U.S.-based Holocaust educator for a multiday program in Western Australia aimed at providing tools for young persons to become “upstanders” rather than a bystanders in the face of discrimination and inequality.
In October the Ambassador took part in the federal parliament’s National Prayer Breakfast together with the governor-general, prime minister, and opposition leader. Religious tolerance and understanding were promoted at the breakfast.
In December the embassy and consulates general organized an outreach tour by a U.S. Uighur activist, who met with the country’s Uighur diaspora. In media interviews and meetings with government officials, the activist noted that the diaspora community reported ongoing Chinese Communist Party harassment in the country.
Historical and modern constitutional documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups and classifies registered religious groups into one of three categories: religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. The 16 groups recognized as religious societies receive the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” In May parliament banned head coverings for children in elementary schools. Authorities arrested a Christian couple for murder after they refused, for religious reasons, medical treatment for their sick child, who subsequently died. Scientologists and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) said government-funded organizations continued to advise the public against associating with them. Muslim and Jewish groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns over what they said were the frequent and growing number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts by members of the Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in the coalition government until May.
According to the interior ministry, there were 49 anti-Semitic and 22 anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 39 and 36 incidents, respectively, in 2017. Most incidents involved hate speech. The Islamic Faith Community (IGGIO) and the Jewish Community (IKG) have in the past reported a much higher number of incidents against their members than the interior ministry, but neither group had updated figures beyond the 540 anti-Muslim incidents the IGGIO cited in 2018 and the 503 anti-Semitic incidents the IKG reported in 2017. In October a man insulted and assaulted a Jewish family, breaking the father’s nose. In April a woman insulted and spit on a Muslim woman wearing a veil. A University of Salzburg poll found 70 percent of respondents felt Islam did not fit into Western societies, and 79 percent supported more surveillance of Muslims. A Eurobarometer poll of residents reported 47 percent considered anti-Semitism to be a problem in the country. Another poll of Austrians by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found two-thirds of respondents believed there was anti-Semitism in the country; 56 percent did not know six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
U.S. embassy representatives met with officials from the Federal Chancellery and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior on religious freedom, the protection of religious minorities, and measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. The Ambassador met with leaders from the IGGIO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and various Orthodox churches to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. The Ambassador also met regularly with youth branches of religious organizations, including the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria (MJO). Embassy officials served on the advisory board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency, an NGO that promotes Holocaust remembrance. Embassy representatives spoke on religious freedom at public ceremonies, and supported programs to combat anti-Semitism, promote religious dialogue, including hosting a speaker series in Vienna and sponsoring visits of Muslim civil society leaders to the United States on exchange programs focused on religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to religious groups and December 2018 figures from the government Austrian Integration Fund, Roman Catholics constitute 57 percent of the population and Muslims – predominantly Sunni – 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. Other religious groups include Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); Eastern Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, and Bulgarian); Jehovah’s Witnesses; other Christian churches; and Jews and other non-Christian religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. It stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups, if such action violates human dignity.
The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”
There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Roman Catholic Church; Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); the IGGIO; Old Catholic Church; IKG; Eastern Orthodox Church (Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and, since January, Antiochian); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; New Apostolic Church; Syrian Orthodox Church; Coptic Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Methodist Church of Austria; the Buddhist Community; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alevi Community in Austria; and Free Christian Churches.
The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs, to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members, to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers, and to provide pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donations are not taxable, and the societies receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from the surveillance charge, payable when state security is required, and the administrative fee levied at the municipal level. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common good and – like all religious groups – to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.
Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. To gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,400 persons) and have existed for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an association and five as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that they have a different theology.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes nine confessional communities: the Baha’i Faith; Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians; Pentecostal Community of God; Seventh-day Adventists; Hindu Community; Islamic-Shiite Community; Old-Alevi Community in Austria; Unification Church; and United Pentecostal Community of Austria.
A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to confessional communities’ charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them, but the communities are not exempt from property taxes. Confessional communities may provide pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.
To gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals, and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.
The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have association status.
According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to gain such status. To become an association, a group must submit a written statement citing its common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing, the right to function in public, and many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services. Associations may not offer pastoral care in hospitals or prisons or receive tax-deductible contributions.
Pursuant to the law governing relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, the Church is the only religious group to receive government funding for pastoral care it provides in prisons. The law also makes various Catholic holidays official national holidays.
The law governing relations between the government and the IGGIO and Alevi Muslim groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law (the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery makes this determination), and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. According to the Office for Religious Affairs, there are similar restrictions on foreign funding for other religious groups, and religious groups generally are obliged to finance themselves from domestic sources. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community. This includes the IGGIO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community and the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, both of which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which the University of Vienna offers.
Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in some details, given they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.
The law bans full-face coverings in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events, in sports, or for health or professional reasons. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150-euro ($170) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.
In May parliament enacted a ban on headscarves and other head coverings for children in elementary schools. The ban exempts kippas and Sikh patkas. According to annexes explaining the law, some federal states impose fines of up to 440 euros ($490) on the parents of those that violate the ban.
The government funds, on a proportional basis, religious instruction for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies by clergy or instructors provided by those groups for children in public schools and government-accredited private schools. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religion classes is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religion classes. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.
Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.
The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the women’s ministry, oversees discrimination cases, including those based on religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In a case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. The commission may issue expert reports for plaintiffs to present before the court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.
The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification “of the National Socialist genocide” or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
In March an amendment expanding a ban on certain symbols the government considered extremist entered into force. Among the newly banned symbols are those pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood and the PKK.
Foreign religious workers of groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based and is subject to a quota. The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies also require immigrant visas but are exempt from the quota system. Religious workers from Schengen or European Union member countries are exempt from all visa requirements.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Members of the then-ruling People’s Party (OeVP)-FPOe government coalition defended the ban on religious headscarves in elementary schools. OeVP Member of Parliament (MP) Rudolf Taschner stated the measure was needed to protect girls from subjugation. FPOe education spokesperson Wendelin Moelzer said the law “was a signal against political Islam.” NGOs criticized the ban, which exempts kippas and Sikh patkas, as singling out the Islamic community. The IGGIO, calling the law “shameless” and a “direct assault on the religious freedom of Austrian Muslims,” announced in May it would file a complaint with the Constitutional Court. By year’s end, it had not done so. In September during the campaign for parliamentary elections, the OeVP called for expanding the ban to middle school students and teachers. At year’s end, parliament had not taken up the proposal to expand the ban.
Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Federal Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities. The office offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults,” including the Scientologists and members of the Unification Church. The office was nominally independent but government-funded, and the minister for women, family, and youth appointed and oversaw its head.
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society Against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO that described itself as an organization working against harm caused by “destructive cults” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public and provide counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. The city of Vienna government ceased to provide funding to the society. All provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated were biased against them.
Prior to its collapse in May, the OeVP-FPOe government did not draft a law making “political Islam” an illegal activity as FPOe Deputy Leader Johan Gudenus announced in 2018 that it would do.
In September parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for review and, if necessary, dissolution of “Islamist” organizations that violated criminal law.
The interior ministry did not release statistics on violations of the face covering ban. In response to a parliamentary inquiry, the ministry stated there were 96 cases in 2018. Authorities only filed charges when persons failed to pay fines immediately, making the total number of cases more than the 96 reported. According to press reports, police issued fines for violations of the ban in 364 cases in the town of Zell am See between January and September 2019, almost all of which involved tourists. Vienna police said they considered violations of the ban a minor offense and had not kept statistics on the number of fines it issued since 2017.
According to the press, at year’s end, school boards had reported eight cases of girls violating the headscarf ban. In all eight cases, authorities waived the penalties after parents agreed to remove the headscarf while their child was in school. The Ministry of Education said the number of cases may have exceeded eight as it had received additional reports of cases reported to the ministry’s ombudsman for values and cultural conflict.
The government continued to allow headwear for religious purposes in official identification documents, provided the face remained sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
In December a former intern of the Linz Regional Court filed a lawsuit with the Federal Administrative Court because the Linz court barred her from wearing a headscarf during official proceedings at the court during her internship there in 2018. The president of the Linz Regional Court issued an instruction prohibiting the intern from sitting at the judge’s bench while wearing a headscarf, stating the clothing did not meet the requirements of a representative of the state and the judicial system. The intern refused to remove her headscarf and the court mandated that she remain in the public gallery during proceedings. The Federal Administrative Court dismissed the lawsuit without ruling on whether the Linz court’s instruction was discriminatory, as the plaintiff had already completed her internship when she filed her suit.
In June parliament approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the government to close the Saudi-Arabian-funded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue after frequent criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. According to the Austrian edition of the online English-language newspaper The Local, the foreign ministry said it would implement parliament’s decision to close the center, but at year’s end the center remained open.
In September the Vienna Administrative Court ruled the Iranian embassy could not operate a mosque in an area in Vienna’s 21st district which, according to zoning laws, is an industrial zone. The Iranian embassy did not appeal the ruling.
In October police arrested a German couple in Lower Austria on murder charges after their 13-year-old daughter died in September of a pancreatic inflammation. The parents, members of the Church of God, had rejected, for religious reasons, any medical treatment that would have kept their daughter alive. There was no further information on the case at year’s end.
According to media, the Federal Office for Foreigner Affairs and Asylum (BFA) continued to refuse to issue or renew residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources. The BFA rejected the permits or the renewals on the grounds that since the law forbids foreign funding of religious groups, it considered that imams receiving foreign funding had no income and were therefore ineligible for a residence permit. According to the Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation (ATIB), an association of mosques under the authority of the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, as of late 2018, there were 38 cases of foreign imams whose immigration status was pending with the BFA.
In March the Constitutional Court dismissed a suit by two Turkish imams employed by ATIB, whom the government expelled in April 2018, under the 2015 Islam law that bars Muslim religious groups from receiving foreign funding. The Administrative Court had already dismissed the imams’ complaint against the initial deportation ruling in 2018. The Constitutional Court suit was filed with the assistance of ATIB and alleged the ban infringed on religious freedom and was discriminatory, stating the government only applied it to Islam. The court ruled that protecting the independence of religious groups from foreign states was a matter of public interest. The court also ruled, however, that the ban applied to funding from foreign states, not to foreign private donors. The Constitutional Court referred the case back to the Administrative Court to determine if any other rights of the imams were infringed and a decision remained pending. Then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he felt “vindicated” by the court’s decision and called the law a model for other European countries.
In February parliament voted to eliminate Good Friday as a public holiday. The change followed a ruling by the European Court of Justice that granting employees belonging to certain religious groups paid leave for religious holidays constituted religious discrimination and the country should amend the law. According to press reports, parliament’s revocation of the holiday generated protests among Protestant groups in the country. Then-bishop Michael Buenker of the Protestant Churches (Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions) reportedly called the change an “intervention in Protestants’ freedom of religious practice.”
The IGGIO protested against a January change in the title of courses on Islam in school report cards to “IGGIO” instead of “Islam.” In June the education ministry changed the title back to “Islam,” with an addition referring to the IGGIO, Shia, or Alevi orientation.
The international NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL) continued to conduct teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness with schools in the country, reaching approximately 100 teachers. In addition, provincial school councils and the education ministry invited Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
In October the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government failed to protect Holocaust survivor Aba Lewit against defamation. Lewit had appealed to the ECHR after national courts failed to convict the magazine Aula for publishing an article in 2015 stating that prisoners at the Nazi Mauthausen concentration camp had been a plague for the region around the camp after its liberation in 1945. In December 2018, according to the Mauthausen Committee, the NGO SOS Mitmensch filed a complaint of 300 pages against Martin Pfeiffer, FPOe Deputy District Chairman in Graz-St. Leonhard, for his role as editor-in-chief of Aula, which the complaint said “had been systematically used for National Socialist reactivation” for 10 years. The magazine had already ceased publication in June 2018, and FPOe Chair Norbert Hofer stated party members involved in the magazine risked expulsion from the party. Pfeiffer left the FPOe and relaunched the magazine under a new name, Neue Aula, in October, but discontinued publication after one issue because of what he said were financial reasons.
Following the collapse of the OeVP-FPOe government in May, Jewish community members advocated against participation of the FPOe in another coalition government. Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and former IKG Vienna President Ariel Muzicant continued to state – for example, during a television interview in May and in a newspaper opinion piece in September – the FPOe was involved in anti-Semitic incidents. IKG President Oskar Deutsch also criticized what he called the FPOe’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism in the party in a television interview in November.
Prior to the collapse of the OeVP-FPOe government, Jewish community leaders stated there had been 51 anti-Semitic incidents attributable to FPOe members or at FPOe-affiliated events since the FPOe had entered the government and said they would not have any contacts with FPOe ministers until those incidents ceased.
In August the Mauthausen Committee published another report citing what it classified as rightwing incidents involving FPOe politicians, many of which it said were religiously motivated, primarily anti-Semitic. According to the report, these activities had increased significantly; it cited 63 incidents in the 13 months ending in July, compared with 106 between the start of 2013 and May 2018. It said the incidents involved persons at all levels of the FPOe and that anti-Semitism by its members, which the party had denied, manifested itself regularly. It stated, “… The FPO[e] shows a close proximity to Nazi ideology” and the worst offenders were party officials in Upper Austria, who accounted for one-third of the 63 most recent incidents.
The committee reported that in February SOS Mitmensch stated FPOe Secretary General Harald Vilimsky had used taxpayers’ money to pay for five full-page advertisements in Info-Direkt, a magazine that it said published anti-Semitic content and that The Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, a government-supported foundation that documents Nazi crimes, described as “extreme rightwing with a neo-Nazi background.”
The committee also cited a report in May by the news magazine Profil that FPOe ministers in the previous government and party politicians from Upper Austria, led by then-transport minister and later national FPOe Chair Norbert Hofer, had channeled 116,000 euros ($130,000) of taxpayer money for advertisements that included anti-Semitic content in extremist rightwing media such as Info-Direkt and Zur Zeit. Profil said the total payments could be higher, since the FPOe-led city government of Wels had refused to provide any information on the issue.
The committee reported that in April FPOe then-vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and FPOe MP Peter Gerstner had separately reposted on Facebook an anti-Muslim message (it did not describe the message) by neo-Nazi website “Zaronews.” According to the committee, “Zaronews” has called Hitler a “savior” and described the Holocaust as the “biggest lie in the world.”
In March the IGGIO filed incitement charges against then-FPOe vice chancellor Strache. At a book presentation in March, Strache had warned, “In Viennese kindergartens, children are raised to be martyrs with hate sermons.” The Vienna prosecutor’s office dismissed the charges.
Authorities were investigating links between the Identitarian movement, widely described by NGOs as far-right and white nationalist, and the FPOe. The Mauthausen Committee reported the connections between the two were significant, and the press published articles stating there were links between FPOe members and the movement. In August the OeVP said a ban of the movement was a condition for a future coalition, a condition the FPOe rejected. FPOe head Hofer denied any association with the Identitarians, and in August said that banning it would set a precedent of a “moral dictatorship.” Justice Minister Clemens Jabloner told the press in August, “One should not restrict fundamental rights even where it is about deeply unsympathetic groups as the Identitarians.”
The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Following an assault at a synagogue in Halle, Germany in October, IKG President Deutsch issued a statement in which he said that security forces protected synagogues in Austria, and he thanked the government for that protection. President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the Vienna synagogue in October after the Halle assault and said that a hard core of anti-Semites also existed in Austria. Deutsch, who received Van der Bellen in the synagogue, commented that rightwing, leftwing, and Islamist groups were causing anti-Semitism, not only in the country, but in Europe generally.
At year’s end, the government had not provided financial support for the restoration of the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna. Then-chancellor Kurz had announced his government’s intention to provide the support during a visit to the cemetery in 2018.
In October FPOe Chairman Norbert Hofer announced the completion of a report prepared by a commission of historians the party commissioned in 2017 to examine the party’s past connection to National Socialism. In December the party released the final report, which included chapters on allegations of anti-Semitism, the party’s relationship with Israel and Islam, and efforts to overcome its Nazi past, among others. A chapter authored by a history professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that, despite the party’s deep historical association with National Socialism, it had made efforts to distance itself from that past. The summary at the end of the report noted active supporters and sympathizers of national socialism “could be found in great numbers in the other parties,” and, “The history of the FPOe should be remembered as a democratic party and important contributor to the success” of the postwar republic. The report drew criticism from independent historians such as Oliver Rathkolb, who challenged its academic substance and denied that the party’s true aim had been a substantive self-critical analysis.
In May Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig and other political representatives, as well as the papal nuncio, attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar. Ludwig also hosted a separate iftar. Ludwig condemned racism and discrimination and said such acts against persons because of their religion worried him. He called on citizens and the Muslim community to make mutual efforts to live together peacefully. IGGIO President Umit Vural thanked the mayor for hosting the iftar and said Muslims were experiencing difficult times in the country and thus needed political support when the number of incidents against them was increasing. Speaking about the parliamentary debate then taking place on banning headscarves for primary school students, Vural said politics should not decide people’s apparel.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the interior ministry, there were 49 anti-Semitic and 22 anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 39 and 36 incidents, respectively, in 2017. Although the ministry did not provide details of the incidents, it stated the majority of cases involved hate speech on the internet by neo-Nazis, as well as instances of persons giving the “Hitler salute” or shouting Nazi slogans.
The IGGIO’s Documentation Center on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism had not yet issued statistics on anti-Muslim incidents occurring in 2019. The center reported receiving reports of 540 anti-Muslim incidents in 2018.
The IKG had no updated figures on the number of anti-Semitic incidents beyond the 503 it reported as occurring in 2017. As was the case with the IGGIO, in past years the IKG reported many more religiously motivated incidents than the interior ministry. For example, in 2017, the ministry said there 39 anti-Semitic incidents reported to police.
The IKG expressed concern over what it described as anti-Semitism on the part of Muslims in the country and entered into dialogue on the issue with the IGGIO.
In October following a dispute with a Jewish family of pedestrians on Yom Kippur, a car driver insulted and assaulted the family, breaking the father’s nose. The IKG said it raised the matter with the interior ministry, but there was no further information on the case by year’s end.
In April an elderly female assaulted a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf at a Vienna tram stop. The aggressor spit on the Muslim woman and called her a “dog” and a “pig.” Then-chancellor Kurz shared a video of the incident and condemned the “sickening attack” on Twitter, saying, “In Austria we stand for a respectful and peaceful coexistence of all religions.”
A report from the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education listed a total of 260 cases of discrimination in schools in 2018 and, as in previous years, attributed approximately 50 percent of these cases to religion, with 122 of 126 (97 percent) of those cases connected to what the NGO termed as Islamophobia. According to the report, many incidents involved disparaging comments or other unfair treatment from educators against female students for their use of a headscarf. For example, the report cited one case in which a teacher told a girl wearing a headscarf she had herself to blame if she could not find a job and was excluded from society. In another case, according to the report, an accounting teacher repeatedly called one of her students a “jihadist” and “ISIS terrorist” and pulled at the student’s headscarf. The school director promised the parents and student that the insults would stop, and the parents reported that the situation improved, according to the report.
In 2018, the government recorded 1,003 cases of incitement to hatred based on national origin, race, or religion, and 72 convictions, compared to 867 cases and 108 convictions in 2017. The government did not provide any information on how many of the cases involved religion.
In May Croats and Bosniaks gathered in Bleiburg for an annual commemoration of Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed in 1945. Some 10,000 participants attended the event. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of displays of Ustasha (a World War II-era fascist organization) symbols, which the government banned effective in March. As in 2018, authorities arrested a man for performing the “Hitler salute,” charging him with neo-Nazi activity. In August the Klagenfurt State Court sentenced him to an 18-month prison sentence. The Worker’s Front Party of Croatia and a former parliamentarian from the Austrian Green Party organized a small counterdemonstration against the Bleiburg commemoration.
In September the University of Salzburg issued the results of a survey of 1,200 residents it conducted in 2018. The survey found 70 percent of respondents felt Islam did not fit into Western societies; 45 percent said Muslims should not have the same rights as other citizens, and 48 percent believed the construction of mosques should be banned. Fifty-nine percent feared there were terrorists among Muslims, and 79 percent supported more surveillance of Muslim communities. In response, IGGIO President Vural warned politicians not to exploit fears and resentments, but rather pursue solutions and visions for the future.
In November the ADL released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 49 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Austria; 33 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 44 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In January the European Commission (EC) issued a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 47 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, while 46 percent did not; 33 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years, while 44 percent thought it had stayed the same. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 49 percent; on the internet, 51 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 44 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 43 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 46 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 46 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 44 percent.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 47 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Austria, while 50 percent said it was rare; 75 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 87 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 76 percent said they would be with an atheist, 78 percent with a Jew, 76 percent with a Buddhist, and 69 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 83 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 72 percent if atheist, 70 percent if Jewish, 70 percent if Buddhist, and 52 percent if Muslim.
According to preliminary results of an anti-Semitism study commissioned by parliament, anti-Israeli positions were dominant among the Turkish and Arab communities in the country. Approximately 70 percent of the Arab community and 50 percent of the Turkish community surveyed agreed with the sentence, “If the state of Israel no longer exists, there will be peace in the Middle East,” compared with an average of 10 percent that agreed among other persons polled. The study also stated that 10 percent of the population had anti-Semitic views, a decrease from previous surveys. Parliamentary President Wolfgang Sobotka expressed concern over the results of the study and said they reflected a major challenge.
According to a survey of Austrians commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted February 22-March 1, 56 percent of respondents did not know six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and 12 percent believed 100,000 or fewer Jews had been killed. Nine percent – and 13 percent of those born since the early 1980s – believed the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was exaggerated. Thirty-six percent agreed there were many neo-Nazis in the country, while 51 percent disagreed. Two-thirds believed there was anti-Semitism in the country.
In September the Linz State Court in Upper Austria handed down a 16-month sentence to a man after convicting him on charges of the glorification of Nazi ideology and disturbance of religious practices. He gave a Nazi salute at an ecumenical service during a Linz fair in October 2018.
In May in the space of fewer than three weeks, unknown perpetrators defaced larger-than-life portraits of Holocaust survivors that were part of an exhibition at a downtown boulevard in Vienna on three separate occasions. Perpetrators cut across the faces of the portraits or defaced them with swastikas and other graffiti. In reaction, several groups, including the Muslim Youth organization and a youth group of the Catholic charity Caritas, organized around-the-clock vigils to protect the portraits. President Van der Bellen and then-chancellor Kurz expressed concern over the vandalism.
In April unknown perpetrators defaced the construction site of a Buddhist stupa in Lower Austria with swastikas.
In February a Vorarlberg court handed down a 20-month prison sentence to a man and a 10-month suspended prison sentence to his wife for playing rightwing songs at parties between 2014 and 2016, and for encouraging their daughters to perform a Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag for a photo.
In January a Vorarlberg court convicted a man to a two-year prison sentence on charges of yelling Nazi phrases, including “Heil Hitler!” and “Work sets you free,” the slogan over the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp, – and physically assaulting a young man. He was ordered to pay 2,000 euros ($2,200) in compensation to the victim and was admitted to a drug treatment program.
Authorities investigated links between the terrorist attacker of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March and the Austrian Identitarian movement. Identitarian leader Martin Sellner received a donation from the terrorist attacker in the spring of 2018. Sellner stressed he had had no knowledge of the terrorist’s plans and denied speculation the two men had met in Austria during the attacker’s trip to Europe later in 2018.
Fourteen Christian groups, among them the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches, continued to meet within the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council. The council met twice a year. There were two permanent working groups on “Religion and Society” and “Media.” Activities included joint religious services, for example on the “Day of Jewry” in January, and joint charitable activities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, including from the Federal Chancellery’s Office of Religious Affairs, the Department for Integration and Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Interior, to discuss religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities. Topics discussed included the concerns of religious groups, integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The Ambassador met with religious group representatives, such as the leadership of the IGGIO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions) , and various Orthodox churches, to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officers also met with youth groups of religious organizations to discuss issues such as anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to discuss ways of promoting religious tolerance and combating anti-Semitism. Embassy representatives continued to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and Holocaust education. The embassy advocated increased agency outreach to combat anti-Semitism among youth, such as by encouraging more school groups to visit the Mauthausen site.
The embassy provided a grant to the first ever Muslim-led initiative to counter anti-Semitism in the country. The MJO-led initiative was headed by three former participants of Department of State-sponsored exchange programs in the United States. It included a series of events, roundtables, and visits to Auschwitz for MJO members. The MJO worked closely with the Jewish community and the Jewish museum to foster dialogue and promote awareness among Muslim youth. The project received third place in the EU’s Charlemagne Youth Prize and won the Austrian Youth Prize. The Ambassador and other prominent officials attended an event in May concluding the project, at which the Ambassador gave remarks condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and supporting religious freedom.
In August the embassy funded the travel of a Muslim educator to the United States to attend training and workshops on religious freedom.
In August the embassy sponsored the participation of three young Muslim women at the Women2Women leadership program in Boston, Massachusetts, where they engaged with young women leaders from around the world on issues including religious freedom.
In February a Muslim-American disabilities rights activist engaged with members of the Muslim Youth on the topic of religion in the United States and advocacy for religious freedom. The visit was an opportunity to share experiences on advocacy for religious freedom and provide a U.S. perspective to local activists. In December the embassy sponsored the visit of a former white supremacist who, in workshops with authorities and NGOs, highlighted the threat of extremism to religious freedom and the role of faith communities in creating resilient societies.
The Ambassador and the Charge of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Vienna attended the commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in May. In his remarks, the Ambassador stressed the importance of religious freedom, and the fact that the liberators of Mauthausen helped end the notion that one person is better than another because of his or her religion.
The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity;” or hinder secular education. Local courts sentenced 57 of the 77 individuals detained after the July 2018 attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, and subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities said those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Human rights defenders considered 48 of these individuals to be political prisoners at year’s end; they also reported that in court hearings throughout the year, these individuals testified that police and other officials tortured them to coerce false confessions. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. Leaders of the political opposition party Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Services officials in Gobustan Prison. Human rights defenders said they considered these and other incarcerated Muslim Unity Movement members to be political prisoners. Estimates of the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 45 to 55 at the end of the year. Authorities briefly detained, fined, or warned individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. The government’s requirements for legal registration were unachievable for communities with less than 50 members. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials. According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. A senior government official stated in May while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment. The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism, including the November 14-15 Baku Summit of World Religious Leaders.
Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, groups viewed as “nontraditional” were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers urged government officials to investigate allegations of serious physical abuse – including alleged torture – of those individuals detained after July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja, and engaged the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of traditional and nontraditional religious groups and civil society in and outside the capital to discuss the situation for religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials met with representatives of various religious groups in Baku and in the regions to discuss religious freedom in the country. Officials had consultations with theologians and civil society representatives and urged the government to implement the constitutionally provided alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.
Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.
The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.
To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.
By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradicts the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter and other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.
The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.
While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments. The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs by those outside of the same religious group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms from 15 years to life.
The law also specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.
The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
An administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”
The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.
According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 ($2900) to 7,000 manat ($4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 ($4,100) to 9,000 manat ($5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses. There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.
Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.
The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.
According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to the legislature. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in positions of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.
The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.
The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Ganja and Lankaran Courts of Grave Crimes sentenced 57 individuals from the 77 persons detained after the July 2018 attack on the then mayor of the city of Ganja and subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. Security forces took 77 individuals into custody and killed five during operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government account of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed did not resist arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku, in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. Civil society activists and human rights defenders said they considered the vast majority of the verdicts as politically motivated.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were 17 incidents between September 2018 and August 2019 in Baku and eight other cities or towns. One follower said two police officers forcibly took a Jehovah’s Witness in Khachmaz to the police station in February. International religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that in February a State Committee official asked the Jehovah’s Witness why he was talking about the Bible and not the Quran. Officers reportedly seized his religious literature, threatened to have him fined, held him for 12 hours without food or water, mocked his beliefs, forced him to write two statements, and then freed him. The Forum 18 report said one police officer threatened to beat him during his detention.
In January former member of parliament Rahim Akhundov stated publicly he had been forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department of the Azerbaijani Parliament due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal unless he chose to resign voluntarily; he said the reason was fabricated. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home and informed parliamentary leadership that he had held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.
In February Muslim Unity Movement leaders Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Service officials in Gobustan prison. Authorities partially responded to their complaints, but the prisoners reported ongoing issues.
Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mixed religious and political ideology. Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat. Human rights defenders and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity similar to previous years. According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year ranged from 45 to 55, compared with 68 in 2018.
On January 30, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade on charges of drug possession. The Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Nuruzade to seven years in prison in March 2018, but activists stated the charges were fabricated to punish him for publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.
On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity members Ebulfez Bunyadov and Elkhan Isgandarov, convicted in 2018 on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism, and sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. On July 10, the Nizami District Court ordered Bunyadov’s release on medical grounds.
On February 18, the Baku Court of Appeals ordered the release of Telman Shiraliyev with time served. The Khazar District Court had extended Shiraliyev’s prison term for an additional five months and 18 days for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell, a charge human rights defenders said was fabricated to prevent his imminent release at the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government had not implemented alternative military service for conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution. In April the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. In October Mehdiyev and Abilov filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
On October 17, the ECHR ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country who conscientiously objected to military service should not be criminally convicted. The ruling consolidated four applications to the Court lodged between 2008 and 2015. The applications involved five Witnesses: Mushfig Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Farid Mammadov, Fakhraddin Mirzayev, and Kamran Mirzayev. Each had been convicted and had served a prison term for their refusal to perform military service. The Court found since the Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service was based on “sincere religious convictions,” the country’s actions against them violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered “nontraditional” by the government reported authorities at times subjected them to harassment and fines for conducting religious activities. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported their inability to obtain legal registration. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders reported that their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities discreet. The government said the inability to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members, and no administrative action was taken against unregistered religious communities.
According to a report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April a police officer went to the home of Jehovah’s Witness Gulnaz Nasirova in Lankaran and forcibly escorted her to the police station for interrogation. Police officers reportedly insulted her, threatened to send her to a mental hospital, questioned her about her beliefs and fellow believers, and demanded she provide her family members’ personal data. One officer made a vague threat that he would harm her children, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was detained for five hours before being released.
Religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration, particularly the to have a minimum of 50 members to apply for registration. For instance, Baptists communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration.
The government continued to allocate funds to religious groups. Experts said the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.
On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 government prohibition on the publication of theologian Elshad Miri’s book Things Not Existing in Islam. The SCWRA said it prohibited the book because its enumeration of ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage, could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country.
The SCWRA reported during the year, it prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239. By comparison, in 2018 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 1,704, and the publication of 26 books out of 192.
On May 6, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider his appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community. It was Shabanov’s second time appealing to the Constitutional Court; his first appeal was similarly dismissed in January 2018. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.
On April 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses Eldar Aliyev, Maryam Aliyeva, Elchin Bakirov, and Bahruz Kerimov in a civil case against the Mingechevir police department. The plaintiffs sought compensation of 500 manat each for the 2016 police raid on a prayer meeting in Mingachevir that they stated violated their religious freedom. On June 23, according to Forum 18, three police officers in Mingachevir tried to search the home of a Jehovah’s Witness where other Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered. They took the names of those present, but when they tried to search the home without a warrant the homeowner refused to allow it. The officers left, saying they would return with a warrant, but did not.
On June 4, the Shirvan Court of Appeals upheld the April 16 verdict of the Sabirabad District Court that fined husband and wife Safqan Mammadov and Gulnar Mammadova 1,500 ($880) manat for holding an illegal religious gathering for minors in their home. The Baptist couple stated they held a secular New Year’s celebration for community children in their home, and that police interrupted the event and characterized it as a Christian meeting by a non-registered group, which would make it illegal.
Following the December 2018 police dispersal of a prayer meeting of Christians Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov, and Jalil Rahimli, the Sheki District Court fined them 1,500 ($880) manat each in separate hearings December 19, 2018 and January 3 for violating an administrative code that prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies”.
On March 3, the SCWRA registered the Baku community of the Fire Christian Church. On July 11, the SCWRA registered the Baku Christian communities of Star in the East and Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.
During the year, the SCWRA registered 34 religious communities, of which 31 were Muslim and three Christian, compared to 90 religious communities registered in 2018, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian. The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 941, of which 35 were non-Muslim: 24 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.
A March 16 presidential pardon that released a number of individuals considered political prisoners by human rights defenders included at least 16 religious activists, including 11 individuals arrested after a large police operation that targeted members of the Muslim Unity Movement in November 2015.
The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status were prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request, an authority the SCWRA said it could employ when necessary. Jehovah’s Witness and other communities have benefited from these letters.
According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. Aynur Veyselova, a senior advisor at the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, stated in May that while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment.
On May 24, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1,1800,00 ) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, compared with one million manat ($590,000 in 2018) and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews (250,000 manat – $147,000 in 2018). The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,000) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku (100,000 manat – $59,000 in 2018) and 100,000 manat ($59,000) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to “traditional” minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust. For example, one Baptist leader stated common citizens, as well as police and local government officials, did not understand or trust his community.
Sevda Kamilova, a linguist, stated she interviewed with several international companies, but each time was asked if she would be willing to remove her headscarf while working.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate the release of those they believed wrongly convicted of wrongdoing related to the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed for the implementation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution, and met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. For example, the Ambassador called on the country to continue promoting religious tolerance in a November 20 meeting with the CMB Head Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade.
The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with the leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including challenges in registration, raids and subsequent fines against nontraditional groups for holding “unauthorized” religious meetings, and the prohibition of publication of books deemed sensitive by the government.
On May 30, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for a community of internally displaced persons who benefited from U.S.-sponsored programs. Representatives of SCWRA, the CMB, the State Committee for Affairs of Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons and others also attended the event. The Ambassador’s remarks highlighted the importance of religious tolerance as a key element of religious freedom.