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 agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, pertaining to recognition, 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, however, that correspondence with the State Committee on Cults included a commitment to provide financial support for evangelical Christian churches. The Orthodox Church, the Albanian Islamic Community (AIC), and the VUSH noted positively the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 105 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, and the status of 68 additional properties was under review. In response to a Constitutional Court ruling that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported it rejected 17 claims for title, which allowed the claimants to take their cases to court. 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 Orthodox Church reported problems obtaining ownership of monasteries and churches deemed cultural heritage sites by the government. As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.
The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year in October and voted to include the VUSH as a member. The AIC reported the Polish government presented an award on October 25 in Poland to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony in Albania. Separately, several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in Albanian religious organizations.
U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious group’s buildings and other property confiscated from them during the communist era. The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults to participate in an exchange program on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The embassy also provided technical assistance from a U.S. specialist who assisted the Ministry of Education in developing a national policy on, and drafting the outline of, a teacher’s manual for teaching about religion in public and private schools. Embassy youth education programs continued to focus on respecting religious diversity. Other embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy also continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth.
The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and 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. Following a July attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, security forces killed five and arrested more than 60 individuals whom authorities said were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” involving at least some members of the Muslim Unity Movement. Local human rights groups and others stated that the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. The government had reportedly imprisoned 68 religious activists at the end of the year, compared with 80 in 2017. Authorities detained, fined, or warned numerous individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. According to religious groups, the government continued to deny or delay registration to minority religious groups it considered “nontraditional,” disrupting their religious services and fining participants. Groups previously registered but which authorities required to reregister continued to face obstacles in doing so. Authorities permitted some of these groups to operate freely, but others reported difficulties in trying to practice their faith. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined numerous individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials, although some individuals had their fines revoked on appeal. The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism.
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated societal tolerance continued for “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e. those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, citizens often viewed with suspicion and mistrust groups that many considered “nontraditional” (i.e., those organized in recent decades).
The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met regularly with officials from the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) and other government officials and urged the government to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities and to improve its treatment of religious groups still facing difficulties fulfilling the requirements for reregistration. The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers engaged government officials to argue against the criminal prosecution for evasion of military service of Jehovah’s Witnesses who sought alternative service as stipulated in the constitution. The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers also continued discussions on obstacles to registration and the importation of religious materials with religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Charge d’Affaires and embassy spokespersons publicly called for the government and society to uphold religious tolerance and acceptance.
The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states that citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In February authorities launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS in part to respond to the November 2017 attack on a mosque in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals; the mosque was reportedly targeted because it was frequented by Sufis. In November a court sentenced an alleged supporter of ISIS to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017. In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in 2016 and 2017 that killed more than 80 persons. According to multiple sources, prosecutors employed charges of denigrating religion to arrest anyone who appeared to criticize Islam or Christianity, with a disproportionate number of all blasphemy charges brought against the country’s Christian population. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 783 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings out of 5,415 applications for licensure, and authorized the building of 14 new churches since September 2017. Local authorities frequently responded to sectarian attacks against Christians through binding arbitration sessions rather than prosecuting perpetrators of violence, leading to complaints by members of the Coptic community. In December President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree creating the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents and to address them as they occur, applying all relevant laws. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications to imams, and register and license all mosques. In May, based upon a 2015 policy, the ministry announced a ban on imams from Friday preaching at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques. In October the ministry announced the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse. In January Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches was “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church are “martyrs.” On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors, including the country’s first-ever female Christian to hold the position, the first such appointments since April 2011.
On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19. Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region. On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers. Reports of anti-Semitic remarks on state-owned media, as well as sectarian and defamatory speech against minority religious groups, continued during the year. Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine, held conferences on interfaith dialogue, and gave statements condemning extremism and supporting improved relations between Muslims and Christians.
The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly meetings in September. U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior-level delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy and consulate general officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 29 states have laws restricting religious conversions. Some human rights groups stated that these laws fostered hostility against minority communities. There were reports by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the government sometimes failed to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some senior officials of the Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made inflammatory speeches against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution. As of November, there were 18 such attacks, and eight people killed during the year. On June 22, two Uttar Pradesh police officers were charged with culpable homicide after a Muslim cattle trader died of injuries sustained while being questioned in police custody. In a separate incident, a court in Jharkhand sentenced 11 individuals, including a local BJP official, to life in prison for beating to death a Muslim, whom his killers believed to be trading in beef. On July 17, the Supreme Court said violence in the name of “cow vigilantism” was unacceptable and the onus of preventing such incidents lay with the states. Attacks on religious minorities included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. On January 10, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested eight men, including four police personnel, in connection with the kidnapping, gang rape, and killing of an 8-year-old girl. The men allegedly kidnapped the victim, took her to a nearby temple, and raped and killed her in an effort to drive her nomadic Muslim community out of the area. In September Uttar Pradesh authorities suspended three police officers after videos surfaced of them abusing a Hindu woman in Meerut for reportedly consorting with a Muslim man. The central and state governments and members of political parties took steps that affected Muslim practices and institutions. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. Proposals to rename Indian cities with Muslim provenance continued, most notably the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj. Activists said these proposals were designed to erase Muslim contributions to Indian history and had led to increased communal tensions.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytize. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data presented in the lower house of parliament on February 6, communal incidents increased by 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, with 822 incidents resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries in 2017. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of “cow vigilante” attacks, which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. On July 21, a group attacked and killed Rakbar Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana, while he was transporting two cows at night. In December an estimated 300 persons, angered by reports of cows being slaughtered in the area, set fire to the police station in Chigrawati and killed a police officer. An 18-year-old protester was also killed in the violence. A mob assaulted two Muslim men, killing one, in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna District on May 17, alleging they were slaughtering a bull. Police arrested four assailants and filed a complaint alleging cow slaughter against the injured survivor. On January 20, a Christian pastor was found dead at his residence in Tamil Nadu. Members of his congregation alleged he had been murdered, and that he had been a victim of frequent past harassment by Hindu fundamentalist organizations. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s 2017 Annual Report released in January, there were 736 incidents of persecution against Christians in 2017 compared to 348 in 2016. Tradition and social custom continued to deny entry to women and members of Dalit communities (former untouchables) into many places of worship. In December the Shiv Sena Party published an editorial calling for government to curb the growth of the country’s Muslim population through such measures as compulsory family planning for Muslims. On September 28, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a move that, according to media, sparked political controversy across the country.
Senior U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In March a U.S. expert discussed racial and ethnic tolerance with audiences in Chennai and Mumbai. In June the Ambassador and the visiting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations stressed the importance of religious freedom during interactions with multiple religious leaders in Delhi. In almost every visit the Ambassador made in India, he engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In August the Department of State Senior Bureau Official for South and Central Asian Affairs visited India and convened a roundtable with senior leaders representing a number of faith groups to exchange views on religious freedom and tolerance. In December the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials, religious minority groups, and civil society representatives in Delhi and Lucknow to discuss the challenges faced by religious minorities in India.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel. On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February. Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture. The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths. Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes. International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh. One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.” The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan. Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian. Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings. According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week. According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity. Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down. On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks. On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September. CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.
According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece. In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces. The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.” At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran. In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.” During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating: “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.” In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.” The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur. The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites. Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area. Most roads were reopened by year’s end. Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members. They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities. Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.
According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.” The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”
Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil. Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers. In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad. Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property. In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad. According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood. Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies. In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses. Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses. Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.
The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority. Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.” The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16. On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Social Accord (CSA), part of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities imposed restrictions and scrutiny on what the government considers “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register “nontraditional” religious groups. In April a Karaganda court convicted three men accused of being members of the Sunni missionary organization Tabligi Jamaat for disseminating ideas and recruiting members on the group’s behalf; the court sentenced them to three years imprisonment. In May a court sentenced a high school student to four years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord in connection with the creation of a group on social media and the dissemination of religious material it labeled as extremist. In January an Almaty court sentenced a Muslim to seven years imprisonment after he posted an interpretation of Quranic verses online. According to the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK), authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment. Forum 18, an international NGO based in Norway, noted 165 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2018 and 284 such prosecutions in 2017. Forum 18, however, released a religious freedom survey for the period 2014 to 2018, noting increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief; unfair trials and torture of prisoners; and making exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission. The government considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty. Government officials indicated at the end of the year that the draft legislation was unlikely to become law.
AROK reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017. In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” with negative coverage of the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and other civil society organizations reported they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society. NGOs and academics reported that members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as Christian groups perceived as proselytizing, such as evangelical, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witness churches, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
The Vice President, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in dialogue with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MSD and CSA. This included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. U.S. diplomatic officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws give Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of religious minority communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials at the local level continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to “free” (nondenominational and evangelical) Christian groups. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities. There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. In March the government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency, restricted social media access, and arrested more than 100 persons in response to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy District in which mobs attacked Muslim civilians, shops, homes, and mosques, resulting in at least two deaths, 28 injured, and extensive property damage to Muslims’ houses, shops, and mosques. According to the media, in February the government deployed police after at least five persons were wounded and several shops and a mosque damaged in anti-Muslim riots in Ampara District. Evangelical and nondenominational Christian churches continued to state police harassed them and local government officials often sided with the religious majority in a given community. Activists reported that on April 29, a group of Buddhists and Hindus forcibly entered the Sunday service of the Apostolic Church in Padukka in Colombo and threatened congregants. Police demanded the Christians stop the worship service immediately. According to activists, on July 8, a group of villagers and Buddhist monks disrupted a Living Christian Assembly service in Sevanapitiya, Polonnaruwa, stating it was a Hindu-majority village. The police ordered the Christian group to stop holding services. At year’s end, the government had not formally registered any free Christian groups as religious organizations. Local police and government officials reportedly continued requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities, citing a 2011 government circular that was no longer in effect. Police and local officials continued to cite a 2008 government circular to prohibit the construction of or to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, despite the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs (Ministry of Buddha Sasana) determining in May that the circular only applied to Buddhist facilities.
Attacks on religious minorities continued. As of October the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 74 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services. According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence. Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force) continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media during the Kandy riots in March. Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to engage in peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that were created following the end of the civil war in 2010 between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority (mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority).
The U.S. embassy repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue. The U.S. government also funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building. In March the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities attended a conference led by the Religious Freedom Institute and engaged with the government and civil society leaders. He met with religious and community leaders and senior government officials to discuss religious freedom. The Ambassador publicly condemned the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy in March.