The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to 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’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” Converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society. According to the Supreme Court, the Bahai Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy, another capital offense under Hanafi jurisprudence; however, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The criminal code punishes verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion with a prison sentence of six months to one year. 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 a continued failure by the courts to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims held some major government positions; however, Shia leaders continued to state the number of positions did not reflect their demographics. Shia leaders also continued to report the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and the Taliban continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities because of their beliefs or their links to the government. The ISKP accused the country’s Shia Muslims of joining militias fighting against the ISKP in Syria and Iraq to justify its attacks. The ISKP also accused the country’s Shia of being progovernment and targeted security and military personnel worshipping in Shia mosques. During the year, media reported at least 13 attacks on Shia places of worship or communities, resulting in more than 500 casualties. The UN Assistance Missions to Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 499 civilian casualties (202 deaths and 297 injured) from 37 attacks against places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers during the course of the year. This represented a 32-percent increase in civilian casualties from such attacks, double the number of deaths and three times as many attacks as in 2016. According to UNAMA, the ISKP claimed responsibility for 18 of the incidents and the Taliban for 20. UNAMA’s annual report found attacks against Shia places of worship and/or worshippers comprised 83 percent of all civilian casualties from attacks against places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. Nearly one-third of the ISKP attacks targeted Shia Muslims, including six attacks directed at Shia places of worship or religious ceremonies. Following Shia community pressure for more protection, the government announced increased security around Shia mosques. The Taliban continued to assassinate or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam; Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country. Officials from the President’s Office and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) estimated the pace of killings by the Taliban had increased and would likely exceed the 150 religious officials killed in 2016. 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 beating and stoning of women suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with the ISKP reportedly engaged in similar activities, including killing an imam in Sar-e Pul for committing sorcery by offering traditional Afghan talismans to worshippers. Reportedly some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued harassment from some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Christian groups reported public opinion remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims stated they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, they said, almost all women, both local and foreign, wore some form of head covering. Observers reported local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. Both Shia and Sunni leaders condemned some secular festivals and concerts as contrary to Islam. 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 the lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead in accordance with their customs from individuals who lived near cremation sites. Shia community leaders reported a continued decline in societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority, although reports of discrimination continued to occur in some localities.
U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism and facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, the embassy met frequently with the Office of the National Security Advisor (ONSC). The embassy met regularly with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase religious dialogue and to identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism. The Ambassador recorded a video statement for International Religious Freedom Day, which the embassy highlighted on social media and shared with local news outlets.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.1 million (July 2017 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Shia and Sunni Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. Shia leaders estimate Shia make up approximately 20-25 percent of the population, while Sunni leaders state the Shia constitute 10 percent.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 1,300 individuals in the country. The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 600 adherents nationwide. Reliable estimates of the Bahai and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Bahai Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”
There is no definition of apostasy in the criminal code. Apostasy falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates unless they repent. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of majority for citizens is 18, except it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty.
Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts and subject to the same punishment.
Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of religious law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.
According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Bahai Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Bahai practitioners are labeled infidels.
Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a shura or council) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a charter consistent with domestic laws as well as a central office. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras or councils may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole. Both groups and associations may register with the MOJ. According to the MOJ database, 2,215 Sunni and Shia organizations performing religious, charitable, and social functions are registered, while the Sikh and Hindu National Shura has one council registered with the MOJ and another with the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs because of the council’s location.
The law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral wellbeing of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA), a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country. The law also obligates RTA to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.
The criminal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, those who destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or those who destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of six months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 afghanis (AFN) to 60,000 AFN ($430 to $870).
According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam, but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools.
According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education (MOE).
The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil code address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.
A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.
The criminal code punishes “crimes against religions,” which include verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion. It specifies a person who attacks a follower of any religion shall be sentenced to a prison term of six months to one year. The issue of blasphemy is covered under sharia, under which the authorities consider it a capital crime.
The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.
The constitution requires the president and vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.
The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.
The law, pursuant to a 2016 presidential decree, mandates an added seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismailis.
According to the MOJ’s database, the country is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights based on a 1983 presidential decree, but the parliament has not yet ratified the country’s signature.
Summary Paragraph: Converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society; however, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead settled disputes through community councils or mediation. Representatives of minority religious groups reported a continued failure by the courts to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. On June 25, the president invited Sikh and Hindu leaders to the presidential palace for a dialogue on the importance of these minority religious communities and their long-standing presence and valuable contributions to the country. Although some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, Shia leaders continued to assert the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to assert, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. Observers stated that these debates were often about ethnicity as much as religion.
As in the previous three years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Bahais continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered to be converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime. There was no new information available about an individual who had been given a 20-year prison sentence for blasphemy in 2013.
MOHRA remained responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group. It charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims reported they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.
MOHRA reported 4,589 mullahs were registered at year’s end who worked directly for MOHRA, of approximately 160,000 mullahs in the country. These mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 10,000 AFN ($140) from the government. Mullahs applying to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques continued to have to hold at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree or equivalent verified by the Ministry of Higher Education was preferred. MOHRA reported approximately 5,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered, including the registration of an additional 700 mosques during the year. According to MOHRA, the ministry lacked the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.
MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about the new construction.
Hindu and Sikh groups reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law punishing conversion, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. They said their community members continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property. On June 25, the President Ashraf Ghani convened a meeting with Sikh and Hindu leaders for a dialogue about their situation and to recognize their long-standing presence in and contributions to the country.
Although the government had provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations.
MOHRA reported there were 4,093 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. There were 152 registered madrassahs in Kabul, with the remaining 3,941 spread throughout the provinces and other cities. While the government registered some madrassahs during the year, it did not report how many. More than 370,000 students were enrolled in the madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to the latest available estimate.
The registration process for madrassahs continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dorms if students lived on campus. MOHRA continued to register madrassahs co-located with mosques, while the MOE continued to register madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.
MOHRA could not estimate the number of unregistered madrassahs but stated it estimated registered madrassahs “far outnumbered” unregistered madrassahs. The MOE was authorized to close unregistered madrassahs, but ministry officials again said it remained nearly impossible to close any due to local sensitivities. According to ministry officials, no madrassahs were closed during the year due to the potential for negative societal repercussions. Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery.
Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. A total of 1,200 public and 200 private madrassahs were registered with the MOE.
According to government authorities, the government continued to monitor financial assistance to madrassahs by requiring registered madrassahs to route private or international donations through the MOE. The authorities said the MOE seldom imposed a ban on a madrassah for failing to comply with this requirement. They also said the continuing tendency of donors to make cash donations directly to the madrassahs made it difficult for the government to track funds coming from private sources or abroad. Despite this, the government’s efforts to solicit donations from other Muslim countries and from private individuals continued. The MOE reportedly continued to require the accreditation of independent madrassahs and disclosure of their funding sources.
The MOE’s Department of Islamic Education continued to provide a standardized curriculum for registered madrassahs. This curriculum required 60 percent of the subjects taught in madrassahs to be religious in nature, while the other 40 percent consisted of mathematics, history, geography, and Dari literature.
A government-sponsored school for Sikh children continued to operate in Kabul. It received proportionate funding from the government to cover staff salaries, books, and maintenance. The MOE also provided the curriculum for the Sikh school, except for religious studies. The community appointed a teacher for religious studies, while the MOE paid the teacher’s salary.
A privately funded Sikh school continued to operate in Jalalabad with funding from the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. Sikh children continued to attend private international schools; Hindu children often attended Sikh schools.
Ahmadi Muslims reported they sent their children to public schools but kept their children’s religious affiliation secret. There were no Christian schools in the country.
Legal sources said the courts continued to rely on statutory law in both civil and criminal cases. Members of minority religious groups continued to report instances, however, when the courts used Hanafi jurisprudence, even when such law conflicted with the country’s international human rights commitments.
The president continued to take advice on Islamic legal matters from the Ulema Council, a group of senior Sunni and Shia scholars, imams, and Muslim jurists. The council met with the president every two months, discussing topics such as support for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces and peace negotiations with insurgent groups. The Ulema Council also continued to provide advice on the formulation of new legislation and the implementation of existing law to the parliament and ministries.
Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments, although, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah made numerous speeches during the year supporting religious tolerance.
Minority religious groups reported the courts still did not apply the protections provided to those groups by the law and the courts denied non-Muslims the access to the courts or other legal redress as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights. According to media reports and representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, some members of these communities were told they did not have equal rights because they were “Indians,” not Afghans, even when they were citizens of the country. Members of minority religious communities reported the state, including the courts, treated all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims remained uncodified. They said the result was non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.
Sikhs and Hindus continued to report their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.
Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to report discrimination, including long delays to resolve cases in the judicial system. The illegal appropriation of Sikh properties remained the most common judicial problem.
There continued to be a small number of Sikhs and Hindus serving in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament.
Although Shia Muslims held senior positions in government, they continued to state the number of their appointments to government administrative bodies was not proportionate to the percentage of Shia they estimated to compose the country’s population. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to assert, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. Other non-Shia observers said the issue of employment of Shia was more related to their largely Hazara ethnicity than religion.
Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.
The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Moderation Center of Afghanistan, a government-funded NGO, continued to promote what the government viewed as a moderate interpretation of Islam. Educational exchanges organized by the center continued to send Shia and Sunni clerics to Kuwait for training, and then appoint them to positions as teachers in various provinces to train other clerics. The center distributed 5,000 books addressing Islamic subjects, extremism, and the current conflict in the country. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation.
The ONSC’s work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism continued. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. The ONSC also continued to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to formulate the strategy through an interministerial working group.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by the ISKP, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups targeted specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Hazara Shia. Media reported the ISKP said its attacks on the country’s Shia population were justified because Shia fighters had joined militias fighting the ISKP in Syria and Iraq. According to media reports, the ISKP also accused the country’s Shia of being progovernment and targeted security and military personnel worshipping in mosques. According to UNAMA’s Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, the combined use of suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and non-suicide IEDs by “Anti-Government Elements” accounted for 4,151 civilian casualties (1,229 deaths and 2,922 injured), constituting 40 percent of all civilian casualties during the year.
UNAMA documented 499 civilian casualties (202 deaths and 297 injured) from 37 attacks, overwhelmingly committed by “Anti-Government Elements” against places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers during the year. These included targeted killings, abductions, and intimidation and represented a 32-percent increase in civilian casualties from such attacks, double the number of deaths and three times as many attacks as in 2016. According to UNAMA, the ISKP claimed responsibility for 18 of the incidents and 412 of the 499 casualties; the Taliban claimed 20 attacks, up from seven attacks in 2016.
UNAMA’s annual report found attacks against Shia places of worship and/or worshippers constituted 83 percent of all civilian casualties from attacks against places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. Nearly one-third of the ISKP attacks targeted Shia Muslims, including six attacks directed at Shia places of worship.
Attacks on Shia mosques for which the ISKP claimed responsibility included: a June 15 suicide bomb attack on a Shia mosque in western Kabul that killed five persons; an August 1 attack by two suicide bombers on a Shia mosque in Herat that killed 29 worshippers and injured 64; an August 25 attack by gunmen and a suicide bomber on a Shia mosque in western Kabul that killed 40 and wounded 100; and an October 20 ISKP suicide bombing in which the attacker lobbed a grenade into the women’s section and detonated his suicide vest in the second row of worshippers at a Shia mosque in Kabul that killed 57 persons and injured another 55.
Attacks on Shia mosques for which no group claimed responsibility included a January 1 bomb attack on a Shia mosque in Herat that wounded six worshippers, and a June 6 blast outside the Great Mosque of Herat, a Shia mosque opened in 1446, which killed eight individuals and wounded 10.
On September 29, a suicide bomber killed seven persons and wounded 37 in a Kabul Shia mosque two days before Ashura.
The media reported complaints by members of the Shia community concerning a continued lack of protection from the government. In response to these attacks, the Ministry of Interior announced increased security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under the authority of the police, to provide extra security for Ashura. During the Ashura processions, however, there were no violent incidents reported – a sharp contrast from recent years.
According to media reports, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. On June 10, Taliban gunmen entered a Sunni mosque in the Gardez district of Paktiya Province and killed three worshippers. On August 11, gunmen killed three worshippers in a Takhar Province Sunni mosque. Rival factions, not linked to the Taliban or the ISKP, were reportedly vying to lead prayers, which led to the shootings.
ISKP attacks targeting Shia continued to extend outside of mosques. On September 28, three individuals were killed, including two policemen, and 16 were injured in a blast at a cinema in the Chendawol area of Kabul with a significant Shia population, according to a local media report. A Ministry of Interior spokesman said the blast was triggered by a magnetic bomb attached to a police vehicle. ISIS media said the attack was directed against a Shia assembly hall in the area. On December 21, ISKP detonated a remote controlled IED outside a library in a predominantly Shia neighborhood, killing four and injuring 10. On December 28, a suspected ISKP suicide bomber attacked the Afghan Voice news agency and a Shia cultural center in Kabul, killing more than 40 persons and injuring at least 80.
Attacks continued against Shia villages and civilian properties. On January 6, unidentified gunmen stopped a bus carrying Shia coal miners in Baghlan Province and killed at least nine passengers. On August 6, gunmen linked to the Taliban and the ISKP killed at least 50 civilians, including women and children, in a Shia village in Sar-e Pul Province.
The Taliban continued to assassinate and threaten religious leaders with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. On March 22, suspected Taliban gunmen assassinated an imam and former provincial council member in Laghman Province. On May 7, a cleric and media adviser to the Kandahar government was shot and killed, reportedly for calling the Taliban jihad “illegitimate.” On May 9, the Parwan Provincial Ulema chief, who had been publicly critical of the Taliban, was killed by an IED, along with six children studying at his school; the Taliban claimed responsibility. On May 22, suspected Taliban gunmen shot and killed the deputy head of the Logar Ulema council while he was walking to his mosque, and on May 28, suspected Taliban gunmen shot and killed a provincial Ulema council member in Paktika Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassinations of the deputy director of Islamic education in Kapisa Province on July 1 and of a progovernment cleric in Nangarhar Province on July 15. During the year, UNAMA documented 26 incidents of killings targeting religious scholars and leaders, compared with eight in 2016.
In addition to the targeting of religious worshippers and leaders, from January 1, 2016, to November 7, 2017, UNAMA documented 25 terrorist attacks targeting individuals deemed to be military targets while they were inside places of worship. Most of those targeted in places of worship were civilians suspected of supporting the government, including tribal elders, judicial officials, civilian government workers, and teachers worshipping inside a mosque. According to UNAMA, on November 27, the Taliban shot and killed the imam of a mosque in Nangarhar Province, accusing him of supporting the government. On July 23, the ISKP killed a local imam in Sar-e Pul Province for committing “sorcery.” The imam had been offering traditional Afghan talismans to worshippers.
In several cases, it was not certain who was responsible for the attacks on religious officials. For example, on March 17, the chief of Hajj and Religious Affairs in Nangarhar Province survived a suicide bombing in which his brother was killed. In September unknown assailants riding motorcycles killed the head of the provincial ulema in the Hesa Awal Kohistan District area of Kapisa Province. On October 12, unidentified gunmen on motorcycles killed an imam outside his mosque in Nangarhar Province.
There were reports of continued Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to the director of madrassahs at MOHRA, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for Afghan National Security Forces and other government employees. MOHRA also reported difficulty in staffing registered mosques in insecure areas because of Taliban threats.
There continued to be reports of the Taliban and the ISKP monitoring the social habits of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their respective interpretations of Islamic law. There were continued reports of the Taliban and the ISKP taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer incidents of harassment than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
There were several media reports of local religious leaders forcing young men to fast during Ramadan. In one instance, a mullah who worked for Balkh Province’s Prevention of Vice Commission shaved the head of a young man to shame him for not fasting.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, reported harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, the women said, they continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some urban areas, including Kabul. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public. MOHRA and the National Ulema Council both continued to state there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.
Ahmadi Muslims reported harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of being persecuted. Ahmadis maintained a place of worship but kept it unmarked, without minarets or other adornments identifying it as an Ahmadi Muslim community mosque.
Christian representatives reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. The representatives said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and 2 mandus (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Following past seizures of their places of worship by residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktya, and other provinces, the Hindu community had presented the list of its places of worship to MOHRA in an effort to stop further seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said these problems remained unresolved at year’s end.
According to the leader of the Sikh community, a new mosque next to a Sikh temple deliberately aimed its loudspeakers at the temple to harass non-Muslim worshippers.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and two schools in Kabul remained operational.
Sikh leaders reported the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration remained a lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased.
Observers reported societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there were reports of discrimination in some localities, especially in regard to employment opportunities. There were also instances, however, where Sunnis and Shia came together for prayer or to donate blood in the aftermath of terrorist attacks.
Both Shia and Sunni leaders condemned particular secular events as contrary to Islam. In July Shia religious leaders in Bamyan declared a local two-day festival celebrating traditional Afghan music as being against Islamic values, forbidding participation or attendance. Both Sunni and Shia religious scholars in mid-August condemned the planned performance of a female Afghan pop singer to celebrate Independence Day as being against Islamic values. The concert’s venue was changed to a lower-profile location.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained inactive, and a nearby Jewish cemetery was utilized as an unofficial dump.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul.
The media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
There were reports many mullahs, especially those in unregistered mosques, continued to support the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with members of the president’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA and the Ulema Council, U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and 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 protect religious minorities.
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. 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.
Embassy officials held regular meetings with leaders of major religious groups, imams, scholars, and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.
Embassy officials hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. The embassy also posted social media content during Ramadan by members of the Muslim community in the United States underscoring respect for religious diversity. The embassy sponsored visits by religious leaders to the United States and other countries to broaden religious dialogue.
The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including from the Moderation Center and MOHRA, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent religious extremism. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent religious extremism.
The Ambassador recorded a video statement for International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, which the embassy highlighted on social media and shared with local news outlets. On social media, the embassy also highlighted remarks from senior U.S. and Afghan government officials urging religious tolerance.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion, says 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 government legalized 41 mosques during the year, compared with 137 in the previous year, six in 2015, and reportedly none in 2014. Religious groups reported the Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) did not process any claims for restitution of property seized during the communist era and approved only one claim for compensation. The ATP stated hundreds of claims awaited amendment of the property law provisions before they could be resolved. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning tax payments. President Ilir Meta granted citizenship to Archbishop Anastasios of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church, stating that he “had reinvigorated the Church after communism.” Between January and May, the government trained 29 teachers at 15 schools as part of a pilot educational program to help prevent radicalization and promote religious tolerance; however, implementation of the full program stalled in May and its future appeared uncertain. The parliament passed a law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities.
The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, met three times during the year in contrast to the previous year when it did not meet at all. The Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) was subjected to criticism on social media for a perceived insult to the country’s medieval hero Skanderbeg at its Eid al-Adha celebration.
U.S. embassy officers continued to urge government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious groups the buildings and other property confiscated from them during the communist era. Embassy youth education programs continued to focus on 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 among youth of violent extremism related to religion. The embassy sponsored the participation of two individuals, including a diversity specialist in the state police, in an exchange program designed to raise awareness and acceptance of human and civil rights for groups including religious minority communities. The embassy also sponsored the rector of Beder University for an exchange visit to the United States with a focus on religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3 million (July 2017 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, Bahais, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional question about religious affiliation, creating the potential for an undercount. No other official estimate is expected until the next census in 2021.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, all religions are equal, and the state has the duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state is neutral 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 states everyone is free to choose or change their religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution also states individuals may not be compelled to participate or excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties or other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Cults, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.
The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but a religious group must register with the district court as a nonprofit association to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and obtaining some degree of tax-exempt status. The registration process entails submission of information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, the identities of its founders and legal representatives, the nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g., government ministries and civil society organizations) in a particular field, the address of the organization, and payment of a 1,000 lek ($9) fee to the district court. A judge is randomly assigned within three to four days of the submission of an application, and the process usually concludes within one session.
The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. The bilateral agreements serve to 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 provision of law enacted in 2009 specifies the government will provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it has agreements dating from the same 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 stipulating the VUSH should receive financial support from the government.
The law requires the ATP to address claims by religious groups for properties confiscated during the communist era.
The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits religious instruction in them. Private schools may offer religious instruction. According to official 2016 figures, religious groups, organizations, and foundations have 125 affiliated associations and foundations managing 116 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox groups operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The Muslim community 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 Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported the total government financial support for these four groups remained at 109 million lek ($986,000), the same as in 2016. The Muslim community continued to receive 28 percent, while the remaining three each continued to receive 24 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of the funds it received for new places of worship.
The government issued a decision in April to reduce the price of electricity as a type of indirect financial support for religious communities. The VUSH reported that several of its properties continued to be charged at the higher rates set for businesses.
The VUSH also reported a continued lack of financial support from the government, despite repeated requests for the government to amend the law and add the provision of financial support.
The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques built during the 1990s, and issued 41 property certificates during the year, compared with 137 in the previous year, six in 2015, and reportedly none in 2014. The government continued to require the endorsement of the AIC for legalization.
The government did not return any properties confiscated under the communist regime during the year; it approved compensation for one property, which had belonged to the Bektashi community. The government stated it was prepared to provide compensation for 112 additional properties, but the relevant religious communities had not yet gone through the required step of requesting the funds. The resolution of the single claim during the year still left unresolved hundreds of claims submitted by the religious communities to the ATP since the fall of the communist regime in 1990. The ATP acknowledged the restitution process was slow but stated 423 claims by religious communities had been resolved recently. These were pending amendment of the 2015 property law, part of which had been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. The ATP also stated it continued to budget funds for the settlement of older claims decided in previous years but not yet implemented, pending a change in the property law provisions.
On a visit in May, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, while offering general praise for the government’s efforts to protect religious freedoms, urged the government to return to religious communities their properties nationalized under the previous communist regime.
Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on places of worship in Gjirokaster, Diber, Permet, and Elbasan. The government reportedly legalized nine tekkes (places of worship) in Gjirokaster, Permet, and Elbasan during the year. The Bektashi said they continued to have problems with the local registration offices in Tirana, Elbasan, and Gjirokaster, noting that the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and occasionally vulnerable to corruption.
VUSH members continued to report difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct places of worship, due to local government tax assessments and regulations. They said they therefore continued to rent existing buildings.
VUSH leaders reported continued problems with regard to property taxes on their churches. They reported authorities levied fines on them for not submitting tax documents normally required only from for-profit companies. In May the VUSH met with tax authorities who reportedly gave assurances such fines would cease, but the VUSH reported the fines continued to be assessed.
On December 22, President Ilir Meta signed a decree to give citizenship to Archbishop Anastasios of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church, which he issued on December 24. The president said Anastasios fulfilled the requirements for citizenship, reinvigorated the Church after communism, and made it one of the most honored churches in the world. While the Greek president and foreign minister welcomed the action, there was some societal condemnation and mixed local political reaction.
The Institute for Education Development trained 29 civics education and sociology teachers in 15 pilot schools between January and May, pursuant to the 2016 announcement by Prime Minister Edi Rama of a new program of religious education in schools, designed to help prevent radicalization and promote religious tolerance. Both the prime minister and the minister of education continued to assert the program would not affect the secular nature of the country’s education system. Religious groups did not contradict this assertion. A pilot cross-thematic curriculum was developed for sixth and 10th grade students; however, implementation of the full program stalled in May, and its future appeared uncertain.
In October the parliament passed a new law on minorities that would provide additional protection for minority rights, including the freedom of religion.
Representatives of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities continued to state the 2011 census presented an inaccurate picture of the religious demographics of the country because their numbers were undercounted. Bektashi leaders expressed concern the census had classified many of their followers as Muslim but not Bektashi.
In May UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed completed his assessment of the state of religious freedom in the country and stated, “Albania is a model for interfaith harmony.” He called on the country “not to take for granted,” but to “uphold the unique societal harmony and co-existence.” He mentioned concern about “unknown foreign funding” but noted, “radical religious groups were under control.” He also urged the government to return properties that were nationalized under the previous communist regime.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, met three times during the year, in contrast with 2016, when it did not meet. In the absence of a permanent secretary general, the four communities making up the council elected the Orthodox Church as the first six-month chair of a rotating chairmanship.
The country’s general election was held on June 25, the same day as the Eid al-Fitr holiday. The AIC issued a statement indicating that even though the date was not ideal, peaceful elections were important for the country and all Muslims should exercise their democratic right to vote.
The AIC received criticism on social media for a perceived insult to the country’s medieval hero Skanderbeg. The AIC had set up two large screens on the grounds where its public September 1 Eid al-Adha celebration took place in order to accommodate the large crowd, according to the Tirana mufti. From certain viewing angles, however, the screens partially obstructed the view of a statue of Skanderbeg, although observers from most other angles reported this was not the case. Social media sites were nonetheless full of posts criticizing the Muslim community’s perceived insult to the nation.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with the state commissioner on cults and the ATP, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era. In June the embassy sponsored the participation of two individuals, including a diversity specialist in the state police, in an exchange program designed to raise awareness and acceptance of human and civil rights for groups, including religious minority communities. The embassy also sponsored the rector of Beder University to attend a Study of the United States Institutes visit to the United States, with a focus on religious tolerance.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to promote religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to churches, mosques, and other religious sites. The Ambassador hosted an iftar for Muslim youth from different communities where he stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance.
The embassy continued its youth education programs and its 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 planned and carried out projects celebrating religious diversity and tolerance. Other embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in the religious communities in Elbasan and celebrating religious diversity through sports clinics with students from madrassahs and Catholic and Muslim universities. Additional seminars sponsored by the embassy with key religious figures and leaders in government and academia focused on the compatibility of religious faith and democracy.
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 as long as they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. Police investigated and arrested Ahmadi Muslims for conducting unauthorized religious activities, such as holding prayers, printing religious books, and collecting donations. In April then-chief of staff to the country’s president called on citizens “to protect the country from the Shia and Ahmadi sects.” The minister of religious affairs stated in February that Ahmadis were “damaging the very basis of Islam” and in July, according to Human Rights Watch, said that Ahmadis were manipulated by a “foreign hand” aimed at destabilizing the government. An Algerian Islamic council declared that Ahmadi beliefs are outside of Islam. Authorities closed a church in Oran, according to Protestant church leaders. The president commuted the sentence of a Christian convert arrested in 2016 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, but he remained in prison as of year’s end. Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations. The government continued to regulate the importation of religious materials. The government delayed granting authorization to Christian organizations to import religious texts. Senior government officials issued statements opposing 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. Christians reported continuing delays in obtaining visas for foreign religious workers.
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. Media outlets reported in August that as many as 600 imams have lodged complaints in recent years after suffering violent attacks. The government attributed the attacks to extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings and said others were related to interpersonal disputes. An Arabic-language newspaper published anti-Semitic items that promoted stereotypes about Jews.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Christian 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 41 million (July 2017 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Muslims following the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. 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, Lutherans, members of the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to government officials, foreign residents make up the majority of the Christian population. The proportion of students and immigrants without legal status from sub-Saharan Africa among the Christian population has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups. Christians reside mostly in the cities of Algiers, Annaba, and Oran, and the Kabylie region east of the capital.
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 that freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable.
The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($8,700) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using to this end 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 ($440 to $870) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults to 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 it 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. 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; furnish police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; show 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 give a response within 60 days of submission of the completed application. The law states applicants are de facto approved if the ministry fails to make a decision 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.
Registration applications of religious associations must be approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA). The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process. Religious groups may appeal an MRA 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.
The National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, a government entity, is responsible by law for facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the commission, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs, the presidency, the national police, the national gendarmerie, and the governmental National Human Rights Committee (CNDH).
The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the agency 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 agency may address concerns of individuals and groups that believe they are not being treated fairly by the MRA. 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 law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Muslim or otherwise, may 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-Muslim religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, 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-Muslim 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 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 be a danger to public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or symbols of the revolution. If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, participants are subject to dispersal by the police. Failure to disperse at the behest of the police may result in 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 prayer in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($870) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,740) 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.” 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 non-Islamic religious writings, except those intended for personal use.
A January 4 decree established 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. The ministry is given 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 January 4 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 of time 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-Muslim collective worship.
Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion.
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 and the use of Arabic as the primary language of instruction, or risk being closed.
The law states discrimination on the basis of 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 constitution prohibits non-Muslims from running for the presidency. Non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.
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.
By law, individuals who have converted from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.
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.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: Police investigated hundreds and arrested dozens of Ahmadi Muslims in several cities and towns in connection with the practice of their religion, according to leaders of the Ahmadi community. MRA representatives, including the minister, continued to make public statements warning against the spread of “foreign” religious influences such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam. In April the then chief of staff to the president called on citizens to “protect the country from the Shia and Ahmadi sects.” An Islamic religious council declared that Ahmadi beliefs are outside of Islam. In February the minister of religious affairs stated that Ahmadis were “damaging the very basis of Islam.” While in April the minister said he did not intend to combat members of the Ahmadi community and that the government’s actions were solely intended to enforce laws on associations and the collection of donations, he stated in July Ahmadis were manipulated by a “foreign hand” aimed at destabilizing the country, according to Human Rights Watch. The president commuted the sentence of a Christian convert arrested in 2016 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook, but as of October the convert remained imprisoned. Another individual, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 2016 for Facebook posts deemed insulting to Islam, was released on June 14 as part of a general amnesty. Authorities closed a church in Oran, and sought to close another in Kabylie, according to Protestant church leaders. Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations. MRA officials, including the minister, continued to state publicly the government’s willingness to accommodate minority faiths that wished to practice in the country by opening places of worship. Christian leaders stated the lack of government responsiveness to visa applications continued to pose complications for religious workers.
MRA representatives continued to make public statements warning against the spread of “foreign” religious influences such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam. In April the president’s then-chief of staff called on citizens to “protect the country from Shia and Ahmadi sects.”
Throughout the year, the government conducted investigations of at least 205 Ahmadi Muslims, arresting dozens, according to leaders of the Ahmadi community. Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. As of December, five Ahmadi Muslims remained imprisoned, according to members of the Ahmadi community. Approximately 30 others were found guilty but, as of October, remained free while they appealed the charges. In February an Algerian Islamic religious council, whose membership is determined by government-appointed officials, declared that Ahmadi beliefs are outside of Islam. That same month, the minister of religious affairs stated that Ahmadis were “damaging the very basis of Islam.” Although in April he said he did not intend to combat members of the Ahmadi community and that the government’s actions were solely intended to enforce laws on associations and the collection of donations, in July, according to Human Rights Watch, he stated that Ahmadis were manipulated by a “foreign hand” aimed at destabilizing the country. A lawyer for the Ahmadi community said judges and prosecutors on several occasions questioned Ahmadi defendants in court about their religious beliefs and theological differences with Sunni Islam. Members of the Ahmadi community said government officials tried to persuade them to recant their beliefs while they were in custody.
In July, as part of a presidential amnesty, authorities commuted the sentence of Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert who in 2016 had been sentenced to five years in prison plus a 100,000 dinars ($870) fine for posting statements on his Facebook page deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. A court had previously reduced his sentence to three years, and he was scheduled for release in March 2018 as a result of the commutation; he remained imprisoned as of year’s end. Rachid Fodil, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 2016 for Facebook posts deemed insulting to Islam, was released on June 14 as part of a general amnesty for prisoners who obtained a diploma.
Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.
MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers, but also stated it 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 donating blood and voting in legislative elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who failed to discuss the suggested sermon topics.
The government monitored 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.
The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. Several Christian representatives stated continued government observance of the ordinance against proselytizing by non-Muslims prompted churches to restrict some activities not related to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in the local community that Muslims might attend.
Authorities closed a church in Oran and sought to close another in Tizi Ouzou Province, according to Protestant church leaders. A November 9 letter from the MOI ordered the closure of the House of Hope Church in Ain Turk, Oran, stating the church was not legally registered to operate and was printing materials for proselytizing. Church leaders said the House of Hope Church was a branch of the nationally registered Protestant Church of Algeria and the premises were not used for the printing of any materials for proselytization. Municipal officials in Tizi Ouzou Province ordered the closure of a church in the area, saying the church building was not authorized to be used for prayer services. The church contested the closure in court, and it remained in operation in December as legal proceedings continued.
Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Authorities generally permitted such churches to operate. Other Christian groups, particularly in the Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly. No houses were shut down during the year, but litigation seeking to shut down one house church was ongoing at year’s end.
Christian leaders reported being able to visit Christians in prison.
According to the MOI, although religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission, the 60-day clock did not begin until the ministry considered the application complete and had issued a receipt to that effect. NGOs and religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt proving they had submitted a completed registration application.
Several religious groups that had been registered under the previous associations law prior to 2012 continued to try to reregister with the government. The Protestant Church of Algeria submitted paperwork to renew its registration in 2014 but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI; this was also the case with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Some religious groups stated they viewed themselves 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, insisting on proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations and 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 had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006. Other MRA officials, however, met regularly with Christian leaders to hear their views, including complaints about the registration process. Christian leaders stated some Protestant groups continued to avoid applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process.
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 could complicate the performance of their official duties.
The government did not grant any permits for the importation of Christian religious texts during the year. Christian organizations stated they had been waiting more than a year for a new import authorization; the last such authorization was in October 2016. 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. The government enforced its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.
The government, along with local Muslims making private contributions, continued to fund mosque construction. The government and public and private companies also funded the preservation of some 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.
The government did not always enforce the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight.
Government officials continued to invite leading Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions; for example, the president invited Christian and Jewish community representatives to the November 1 parade to commemorate the beginning of the revolution, according them the same status as Muslim, cultural, and national figures.
Senior government officials publicly condemned acts of violence committed in the name of Islam by nonstate actors and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior. In response to terrorist attacks in other countries during the year, including in the United Kingdom, Russia, and Spain, the government issued statements calling the attacks “criminal acts” for taking innocent human lives in contradiction to the tenets of Islam.
Government officials regularly made statements about the need for tolerance of non-Islamic religious groups. In April imams, representatives from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and municipal officials participated in an interfaith event at a Catholic church in Algiers featuring Christian and Muslim prayers and a panel discussion on Quranic and Biblical teachings on the environment.
Church groups reported the government did not respond to their requests for visas for religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in an increase in de facto visa refusals. One Christian leader said, of 21 visa requests, only two were approved. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as a significant hindrance to religious practice. One religious leader 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.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Several Christian leaders reported instances in which citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.
Some Muslim citizens who converted to Christianity reported 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 Muslim citizens who converted to Christianity practiced their new religion openly, however, according to members of the Christian community.
Media outlets reported in August that as many as 600 imams had lodged complaints in recent years after suffering violent attacks. MRA officials said some of the attacks were perpetrated by extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings, while others were related to interpersonal disputes. The government said it would take additional steps to protect imams.
The media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Some who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, harassed them to convert, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice. The head of an independent imams union described Ahmadiyya as an “infidel” sect.
Both private and state-run media produced reports throughout the year examining the supposed foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists. For example, in August the newspaper L’Expression published an article claiming groups such as the Karkariya Sufi order and Ahmadi Muslims were part of a “plot” against Algeria by “Western-Zionist” powers.
Jewish citizens said they continued to try to keep their religious identity private, while otherwise engaging with society. In August the newspaper Echourouk El Youmi published a cartoon depicting a Jewish man sitting in front of an Arab man who had stripped off his clothes. The Jewish man was holding a sign saying “more,” appearing to imply that he was not satisfied despite what the Arab man had given up. Another Echourouk El Youmi cartoon published in August depicted a Jewish man with a Star of David on his sleeve clenching the surface of a globe, implying world domination by Jews. On August 10, the same newspaper published an article stating that Jews had been plotting against Muslims since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, that Jews were responsible for most of the disasters that have befallen Muslims, and that Jews controlled the media, cinema, art, and fashion.
Christian leaders said they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment.
Christian leaders said when Christian converts died family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and the church had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims. A ministry official stated that where burial grounds were private, such cases were outside the government’s domain.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Christian and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers also regularly addressed the government’s stance toward minority Muslim communities.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met throughout 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 status.
The embassy 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 U.S. Department of State regularly raised religious freedom issues in meetings with civil society and government officials.
The Ambassador and other embassy staff hosted several dinners and receptions featuring discussions emphasizing the theme of religious tolerance. The embassy regularly posted social media content promoting religious freedom, including examples of religious pluralism in the United States. Embassy staff and embassy-sponsored U.S. speakers addressed the themes of pluralism and religious tolerance in discussions with civil society, youth, and organizations representing a cross-section of citizens.
The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination. In accordance with the constitution, the government continued to offer the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups. The government permitted ritual slaughter to meet Islamic and Jewish religious dietary requirements under veterinary supervision at the country’s slaughterhouse. Some Muslims expressed concerns that individuals wearing head coverings for religious reasons had to remove them in photographs for official documents. The government did not resume meetings with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss the possible construction of a cemetery where they could conduct burials in accordance with their religious beliefs and customs. In February the Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recommended the government establish a body to combat various forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism, and enact legislative reforms pertaining to discrimination, including religious discrimination. In July a study by the government also recommended enactment of a nondiscrimination law, which would include religious discrimination. By year’s end, parliament had not passed legislation pursuant to the ECRI or government recommendations. Foreign religious workers for religious groups other than the Catholic Church could not obtain religious work permits but could enter the country under a different status and perform religious work unhindered.
The Muslim community used two prayer rooms, but there was no mosque in the country. 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 community.
During periodic visits, the U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, the Consul General, and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona continued to raise with senior government officials and civil society leaders 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 77,000 (July 2017). The population is predominantly Roman Catholic. Muslim leaders estimate the community has 800-2,000 members. The Muslim community, of which the large majority is comprised of recent immigrants, has grown in recent years. The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members. Other small religious groups include Hindus, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Bahais, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 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.” 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) is the Catholic Bishop of Urgell, Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia, whose diocese in Spain includes Andorra.
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 register as a nonprofit cultural organization and acquire legal status. 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 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, so 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 the public schools where religion classes are taught.
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.
Authorities at the local and national level did not resume meetings with the Jewish and Muslim communities to further discuss construction of a cemetery where they could bury their dead according to their customs, and Jewish and Muslim representatives said no municipality had identified a space for such use. Government officials stated they were still exploring the possibility of building cemeteries for those communities but that there was no precedent for providing land for such a purpose. Although Jews and Muslims could bury their dead in existing cemeteries, municipalities did not allocate separate burial areas in those cemeteries for use by those communities. As a result, these communities generally buried their dead outside the country. The Jewish community, for example, continued to use cemeteries in Toulouse, France, and Barcelona, Spain. The Muslim community continued to use cemeteries in Toulouse or bury their dead in their countries of origin.
Based on a court hearing that took place on October 10, the prosecutor’s office concluded the 2014 assault by two individuals of a Jewish man outside of a discotheque in the city of La Massana did not constitute an anti-Semitic hate crime.
The government continued to fund three Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level.
In February the Council of Europe’s ECRI published its quinquennial report on the country and recommended establishing a national body to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; more comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation; and introduction into law of the principle of sharing of the burden of proof in civil cases alleging discrimination, including religious discrimination. As a follow-up to the recommendations in the ECRI report, on November 23, the parliament extended the mandate of the national ombudsman to process complaints, including those involving incidents with a religious motivation.
In July a study on equality, including religious equality, that the government carried out with civil society recommended enactment of a law on nondiscrimination, which would also address cases of discrimination on the basis of religious belief. By year’s end parliament had not enacted such a law.
Members of the Muslim community again raised concerns that individuals wearing head coverings for religious reasons were required to remove them in photographs for official documents.
According to members of the Muslim community, a Muslim halal butcher regularly performed ritual slaughter at the country’s slaughterhouse.
Foreigners performing religious functions for religious groups other than the Catholic Church remained unable to obtain religious working permits because the law did not define what constituted a “religious worker.” These workers had to enter the country under a different status. Foreign religious workers could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and were able to carry out religious work without hindrance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There continued to be no mosque in the country, but there were two Muslim prayer rooms in Andorra la Vella and in Esclades 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 community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona discussed 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.
Consulate general officials met with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss issues such as the lack of legal status as religious groups for faiths other than Catholicism, the implications of regulations requiring individuals to remove head coverings for official identity documents, and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.
The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religion. The law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting rigorous criteria. On November 24, a court in Luanda sentenced four Muslims to three years’ imprisonment and a fine for allegedly forming a radical Islamic group and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Two others were acquitted of similar charges. The government continued to state its concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which the government said exploited vulnerable populations. In his first State of the Nation speech to the parliament in October, newly elected President Joao Lourenco called for changes to the 2004 law on religious freedom and measures to reinforce the separation of religion from business. Subsequently, the Ministry of Culture launched a dialogue with officially recognized churches to obtain input for the drafting of a new law on religious freedom. There are 81 religious groups and four ecumenical associations recognized and more than 1,000 unrecognized religious groups. The government has not recognized any new religious groups since passage in 2004 of the law that requires religious groups to have at least 100,000 citizens as members. The government did not respond to Muslim community groups’ requests for government recognition submitted in 2005. Many unregistered religious groups continued to operate with what they described as tacit acceptance. The government encouraged these groups to join associations to serve as interlocutors with the state and exert control over their respective members. During the year the four associations that interacted with the government oversaw approximately 1,000 unrecognized religious groups.
Police arrested three suspects who were involved in an August 26 gas attack on the annual congress of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Luanda, which killed two persons and injured 400. As of year’s end, four other suspects remained at large. While the motivation behind the attack remained unclear, one media source claimed that two of the alleged perpetrators belonged to an opposition political party that wanted to punish the Jehovah’s Witnesses for not voting in the recently concluded national elections. Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups, while they also acknowledged the need for greater religious understanding and interfaith dialogue.
Throughout the year, the embassy raised religious freedom issues, including long-pending registration applications and the drafting of the new religious freedom law with government officials. Embassy officials met with representatives of religious groups and civil society organizations and discussed their views regarding the government’s concern with the proliferation of churches and also discussed efforts to promote interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.3 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2014 national census, approximately 41 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 38 percent Protestant. Individuals not associated with any religious group constitute 12 percent of the population. The remaining 10 percent is composed of animists, Muslims, Jews, and other religious groups. While the 2014 census reported there were an estimated 103,000 Muslims in the country, one leader of a Muslim organization stated there could be as many as 800,000. His figure includes an unknown number of Muslim migrants mainly from North and West African countries. There are approximately 350 Jews in country, primarily foreign residents.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the state as secular and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution requires the state to protect churches and religious groups as long as they comply with the law. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship, and it recognizes the right of religious groups to organize and carry out their activities as long as they adhere to the law. The constitution permits conscientious objection for religious reasons, prohibits questioning individuals about their religious beliefs for reasons other than anonymous statistical purposes, and specifies that religious rights may not be suspended even if the state declares a state of war, siege, or emergency. It recognizes the right of prisoners to receive visits from, and correspond with, religious counselors. The law establishes that conscientious objectors can perform civilian service as an alternative to military service.
The religious freedom law requires religious groups to register for legal recognition from the state. Legal recognition gives religious groups the ability to purchase property collectively and use their property to hold religious events, exempts them from paying certain property taxes, and authorizes a group to be treated as an incorporated entity in the court system. To apply for government recognition, a religious group must collect 100,000 member signatures from legal residents from 12 of the 18 provinces and submit them to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (MJHR). The law also requires religious groups to submit documents defining their organizational structure, methods of worship, leadership, and the amount of time the group has operated in the country, and that their doctrine be in accordance with principles and rights the constitution. In 2015 the MJHR issued a circular that provides for the establishment of ecumenical associations and the requirements for an unrecognized religious group to incorporate with the ecumenical association. While the MJHR is responsible for registration and recognition of religious groups, oversight of religious organizations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture through its National Institute for Religious Affairs (INAR).
Religious instruction is not a component of the public educational system. Private schools are allowed to teach religion.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 24, a court in Luanda sentenced four Muslims to three years’ imprisonment and fined them 70,000 kwanzas ($410) for allegedly forming a radical Islamic group and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Two other defendants were acquitted. The defendants maintained their innocence and said they were discriminated against because of their Muslim faith. They acknowledged they discussed religion over the internet through a Facebook page and stated they had discussed writings by a Brazilian Muslim who was detained in Brazil related to charges of participating in a terrorist cell. Lawyers for the defendants asserted their clients’ innocence and said that discussing religion on social media and sharing religious beliefs with others was not a crime and was a common practice among other religious communities. In a private meeting, a leader in the Muslim community said that he did not believe the individuals were persecuted for their religious beliefs, and he agreed that they should be tried and held accountable for any crimes they might have committed so as not to cast a negative light on the Muslim community in Angola.
Government officials at the highest levels continued to state concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which were alleged to have exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues to worship or belong to these organizations. In President Lourenco’s first address to parliament on October 16, he expressed the desire to change the law on religious freedom in order to reinforce the lines separating religion from business. A few days after the president’s speech, the minister of culture started a dialogue with officially recognized churches to elicit input that would be taken into account as the government drafted a new religious freedom law. On November 11, the vice-governor of Luanda Province stated her wish to curtail the proliferation of religious sects that she said operated churches solely as profitable businesses rather than simply places of worship, or were detrimental to social order.
The government again recognized no new religious groups, and the number officially recognized remained at 81. The government has not recognized a new religious group since 2004 when it created the current application system. A large number of groups continued to await recognition despite having submitted several applications for registration. In 2015, the government estimated that approximately 1,300 religious groups were operating without government recognition, some of which were providing education and medical care to members despite having no legal authority to do so.
The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups officially or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally. The Muslim community requested official recognition of its groups but was unable to meet the requirements of the 2004 law, including having 100,000 citizen members and a religious doctrine aligned with the country’s constitution. In the past government officials had stated that some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution.
The Muslim community was organized under the Islamic Foundation of Angola (FIA), which interacts with the government and organizes the mosques and adherents in the country. The FIA applied for recognition but did not receive an official response from the government as of year’s end. The Islamic Community of Angola (COIA) is a civil rights organization that applied for recognition in 2005 and also had not received a response from the government. According to the COIA leadership, the high threshold for obtaining legal status, combined with the fact that the majority of recognized religious organizations were Christian, indicated the government opposed recognizing non-Christian religious groups. The Bahai Faith and the Global Messianic Church remained the only two non-Christian organizations legally registered.
During the year the government continued to lead an effort to bring unrecognized Christian groups together in associations that would then receive de facto government recognition, requesting those groups to support actively government requests, such as calls to register for elections, and not to engage in illegal practices. The government approved the operation of four coalitions of Christian churches: the evangelical Christian Union of Churches of the Holy Spirit in Angola, the Protestant Christian Church Coalition of Angola, the National Convention of Angolan Christian Churches, and the Angolan Reviving Churches Council. The INAR stated that since 2016 dozens of groups had joined these associations to avoid closure.
Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets continued to accuse the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely. In June and July the media reported several instances of national- and local-level politicians presenting the ruling party’s platform to religious leaders and requesting their support in getting congregation members to polling places and ensure an atmosphere of peace during the election period.
While religious groups were free to run radio stations and written press, the government did not approve a 2009 request from the Catholic radio station Ecclesia to extend its signal beyond Luanda.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On August 26, seven alleged assailants released a toxic gas among the 7,000 persons gathered at the Viana Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their annual congress. More than 400 individuals were affected, mainly by causing victims, including young children, to faint. Police and firefighters were called to assist the victims, and two persons died. The National Police detained three of the alleged perpetrators, while four remained at large. In one media report, two of the alleged perpetrators declared they were members of an opposition political party that wanted to punish the Jehovah’s Witnesses for not voting in the recently concluded national elections. Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations – Bishop Jose Manuel Imbamba of the Episcopal Conference of Angola and Sao Tome, Deolinda Teca of the Angolan Council of Christian Churches, Luis Nguimbi of the Angolan Christian Forum, and others – continued to criticize the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups. Teca also acknowledged the need for greater religious understanding and interfaith dialogue.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, the embassy raised religious freedom issues with government officials, including long-pending registration applications and the drafting of the new religious freedom law. In February embassy officials and a representative from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom met with government officials from the Ministries of Culture, Justice and Human Rights, External Relations, and the INAR and discussed religious registration and possible areas of cooperation to promote religious tolerance.
Embassy officials met with religious leaders and civil society representatives to discuss religious freedom issues and expanded outreach to religious communities, including the Jewish community. During the Department of State officer’s February visit, he and embassy officials met with representatives of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities and civil society and discussed their reaction to the government’s stated concerns about the proliferation of churches. They also discussed the status of pending recognitions, the proposed law on religion freedom, and efforts to promote increased interfaith dialogue.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution provides that the government will grant the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. By law, public schools are secular, but private schools run by registered religious institutions are eligible for government subsidies. The government continued its investigation into the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center. In December a federal judge indicted former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on charges of “aggravated concealment” for allegedly attempting to cover up possible Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing. In September Vice President Gabriela Michetti at the UN General Assembly urged international support for the country’s demands that Iran cooperate in the continuing investigation of the AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. On September 20, the Gendarmerie completed a forensic report concluding that Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor in charge of the AMIA bombing investigation, was murdered in 2015. In July the Secretariat of Worship of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) submitted a draft religious freedom bill to the lower house of congress. The legislation would eliminate the requirement that non-Catholic religious groups register with the government to receive the same benefits accorded to the Catholic Church, allow for conscientious objection based on religious grounds, and protect religious dress, religious holidays, and days of worship. There was considerable debate regarding the bill within the government and society at large, which continued throughout the year.
In May several human rights organizations, including the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, criticized the Catholic Church for organizing an event calling for reconciliation between relatives of victims killed by the former military governments and 1970s-1980s military regime officers. Interreligious organizations such as Religions for Peace continued to exemplify the value of religious diversity and to take joint action in addressing common societal challenges. These groups worked to increase opportunities for multireligious action on common societal challenges. Jewish and Muslim community representatives also conducted various cultural events to promote interreligious harmony, including a “hummus festival” that attracted hundreds of participants held in Buenos Aires in September.
Embassy officials met with senior government officials, including with the secretary of worship, officials in the MFA’s human rights office and in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote religious diversity and counteract religious discrimination. Embassy outreach efforts included regular meetings with religious and community leaders to discuss interfaith collaboration and to encourage the increased participation of religious communities in embassy-sponsored scholarship and educational programs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 44.3 million (July 2017 estimate). Religious demographic and statistical data from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research centers, and religious leaders vary. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, Roman Catholics constitute 71 percent of the population, with Protestants at 15 percent, and atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious affiliation at 11 percent. Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) together total 3 percent of the population. The Jewish population is approximately 250,000-300,000, and the Muslim population is estimated to be between 450,000 and one million. Evangelical Protestant communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing in size, but no reliable statistics are available. There are also a small numbers of Bahais and adherents to indigenous religions in the country; however, no data is 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 attests 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.
Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but is sometimes required to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for public activities, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the secretariat to receive the 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 some 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 religious officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The length 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 the 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.
In December a federal judge indicted former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on “aggravated concealment” charges, seeking her arrest on allegations she had covered up possible Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The court also requested the lifting of her immunity from prosecution as a sitting senator. Authorities also conducted raids linked to the case and arrested three of Fernandez de Kirchner’s former associates, including her former foreign minister, Hector Timerman. Fernandez de Kirchner and 14 others had been called to testify in October.
In September the gendarmerie (national police) completed a forensic report supporting the hypothesis that Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor responsible for the investigation of the 1994 AMIA bombing, was murdered in 2015. Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment from a gunshot to the head. Previous analyses had maintained that there was insufficient evidence to prove foul play. On December 26, a federal judge ruled Nisman was murdered that Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor responsible for the investigation of the 1994 AMIA bombing, was murdered and charged Nisman’s former assistant, Diego Lagomarsino, as an accessory to his death.
The administration of President Mauricio Macri administration also publicly expressed its commitment to transparency and pursuing justice in the investigation of the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.
In July the secretary of worship submitted a draft religious freedom bill to the lower house of congress that would eliminate the requirement that non-Catholic religious groups register with the government to receive the same benefits accorded to the Catholic Church, allow for conscientious objection on the basis of religion, and protect religious dress, religious holidays, and days of worship. While President Macri, the Permanent Commission of the Argentine Catholic Bishops, and some other religious groups supported the draft bill, others opposed it. Catholic Archbishop of La Plata Reuben Aguer said the draft bill challenged the Catholic Church’s “elevated status” in the country. The country’s branch of Amnesty International also opposed the draft bill, stating it could allow doctors to refuse to provide contraception, judges to refuse to officiate at same-sex marriages, and teachers to refuse to teach evolutionary theory because of their religious beliefs. There was no action on the draft legislation by year’s end.
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, on October 22, approximately 20 individuals appearing to be local police officers harassed attendees of the Pueblo Grande Baptist Church and threatened them with arrest. The officers left after local Gendarmerie officers protecting the church intervened and demanded the individuals show identification.
Jewish groups said relations with the government continued to improve under the Macri administration. The groups said the relationship had transformed from one of distrust to one of close collaboration, particularly in light of what they stated was the administration’s strong commitment to resolve the Nisman murder and to pursue justice in its investigations of the 1994 AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy.
Secretary of Worship Ambassador Santiago de Estado, Undersecretary for Worship Ambassador Alfredo Abriani, the Buenos Aires director general for religious affairs, and other government representatives continued to host and attend religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, 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 November the city of Ushuaia hosted the Second World Congress on Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue, aimed at promoting interreligious dialogue and understanding.
INADI continued to spearhead education campaigns directed at public and private schools to facilitate a better understanding among youth of religious tolerance and respect for diversity. In March INADI announced a new partnership with UNICEF to counter cyberbullying, including religious discrimination.
In June police in Buenos Aires seized a large cache of Nazi-era objects, including instruments used in Nazi medical experiments, in a private house. The minister of security stated it was the largest seizure of Nazi objects in the country’s history. Police identified several suspects; however, there were no arrests by year’s end.
In July the MFA delivered approximately 40,000 World War II-era documents to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, including diplomatic correspondence from Argentina’s embassies in Europe, visa applications from Jewish refugees and applicants, and newspaper articles. In September the government presented approximately 140,000 World War II-era documents to Israel during a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On March 8, individuals protesting the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion set fire to the Catholic Cathedral of Buenos Aires, causing property damage. On October 15, a group protesting the Catholic Church’s policies on abortion and prostitution set fire and damaged property at a church in the town of Resistencia, Province of Chaco. Two bystanders received minor injuries when attempting to intervene.
In May several human rights organizations, including the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization of mothers whose children disappeared during military rule in the 1970s and 1980s), criticized the Catholic Church for organizing an event calling for reconciliation between relatives of victims killed by the former military governments and 1970s-1980s military regime officers. The human rights organizations said the event, organized by the Argentine Bishops’ Conference, was an attempt to deflect the Catholic Church’s perceived complacency with the military government’s repressive actions against its opponents.
On September 11, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared around Buenos Aires, including on the walls of the Israeli Embassy, protesting the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In November a host of the national television show “Us in the Morning” was fired after she posted anti-Semitic comments on her Twitter account. INADI published a statement repudiating the host’s “racist” declarations.
The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) documented 351 reported complaints of anti-Semitism in 2016, compared with 478 reported complaints of anti-Semitism recorded in 2015. DAIA continued to track complaints of verbal, physical, and online harassment or anti-Semitic remarks, as well as anti-Semitic language in public spaces, including social and traditional media and during demonstrations and protests.
Interreligious organizations groups such as Religions for Peace, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, and indigenous religious groups, continued to exemplify the value of religious diversity. These groups worked to increase opportunities for multireligious action on common societal challenges.
Jewish and Muslim community representatives conducted various cultural events to foster closer community ties, including a “hummus festival” held in Buenos Aires in September.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with government representatives, including with the Secretary of Worship, the MFA’s human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote religious diversity and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials at the national and Buenos Aires city levels, the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials discussed tolerance, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination. In meetings with the Secretary of Worship, embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, as well as discussing the status of the AMIA case and ways to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
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 and integration of refugees, the status of the AMIA case, and ways to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and promote religious tolerance. Embassy officials regularly attended conferences, observances, and commemorations organized by religious groups and NGOs, including DAIA, AMIA, the Islamic Center of Argentina, the Islamic Center for Peace, the Evangelical Church of Argentina, and the United Religious Initiative. Embassy officials continued to encourage the increased participation of religious communities in embassy-sponsored scholarship and educational programs. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media campaigns.
The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The constitution 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. Religious minority groups stated they were particularly concerned with the potentially negative effect on minority religious groups of a draft law on religious freedom. Representatives of Christian minority religious groups said they continued to worship freely; however, some Christians said they felt obligated to practice their religion discreetly, particularly while serving in the military. Human rights activists continued to express concern about the government’s concurrence with the AAC’s dissemination of teaching in schools that often equated AAC affiliation with national identity. According to minority religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government statements equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel both governmental and societal discrimination against religious organizations other than the AAC.
Unlike the previous year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported no instances of societal physical harassment against its members; there were 10 instances of verbal harassment, down from 17 the previous year. Jehovah’s Witnesses attributed the decrease to prompt police action. According to a Pew Research Center survey published in May, 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “It is important to be part of the AAC to truly share the national identity of the country.” According to Christian minority religious groups and NGOs, the media climate continued to improve for minority religious groups compared with previous years, becoming more balanced and accurate; however, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported instances of negative reports in the media.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officers met with AAC leaders to engage the AAC in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faith without restrictions. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to send messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies with the AAC. Other religious groups, none representing more than 1 percent of the population, include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), members of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, pagans, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Bahais, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. According to members of the Jewish community, there are between 500 and 1,000 Jews.
Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats, and Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Jews, Mormons, and Orthodox Christians reside in Yerevan, along with a small community of Muslims. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes “the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms for the purpose of inciting 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; however, no prosecutions have occurred under this law.
According to the law, a registered religious group has the right to 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, and 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 communications media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but in order to conduct business in its own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, establish bank accounts), it must register. 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;” be “free from materialism and is of a spiritual nature;” have at least 200 adult members; and its doctrine be 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 considered part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities. A decision by the Office of the State Registrar may be appealed through the courts.
The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($410) or detention of up to two months.
The Human Rights Defender’s office (Ombudsman’s office) has a mandate to address human rights violations and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of the state and local governments.
The law prohibits an employee of the police, National Security Service, service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, penitentiary service, or rescue service from being a member of a religious organization, but the law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits members of the police, military, and National Security Service, as well as prosecutors, diplomats, and other national, community, and civil servants from using their official position 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.” According to a new law regarding military service adopted on November 15, a military service member is not permitted to establish a religious association. If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during the military service.
The law allows the AAC free access to, and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.
The law mandates public education be secular, and states “religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited, with the exception of cases provided by law.” Courses called the History of the Armenian Church (HAC) are a mandatory part of the national curriculum in public and private schools in grades five through 11.
The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for these courses and to define the qualifications of their teachers. The Church may nominate candidates to teach the courses, although the teachers are state employees. All students are required to enroll in these classes; there is no opt-out provision. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities, but not within the premises of state educational institutions.
The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on religious views of employees.
The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months, or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service remains a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment depending on the circumstances of the case.
The law does not recognize groups organized on the basis of religion as political parties.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred through violence, public statements, or the mass media and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($410 to $1,000) or prison terms of between two and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Religious minority groups said they were concerned about the potential erosion of their rights through a legislative initiative on religious freedom proposed by the government and sent to the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) for review in November. Representatives of religious minorities said if the law passed as drafted, it would adversely impact freedom of religion for minority religious groups in the country. Human rights activists continued to express concern about the government’s concurrence with the AAC’s dissemination of teaching in schools that often equated AAC affiliation with national identity. According to minority religious groups and NGOs, government speech equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel discrimination against minority religious groups. NGOs and some religious groups also said the focus in school textbooks on the Bible and AAC traditions and language, such as “we the Armenians are Christian people,” and “thanks to the AAC, Christianity has become the inseparable part of the national identity of the Armenian people” showed government preference for the AAC. They also said other religious groups were sometimes characterized in disparaging or inaccurate ways. During the year religious minority groups did not report abuses during the military service of their religious community members, unlike in previous years. One group reported a “positive attitude” toward members of the evangelical Christian faith in the army, including from AAC chaplains. Minority Christian groups reported they had the freedom to worship provided they did so privately and discreetly on their own premises and in their community – keeping their activities low-profile and exercising self-censorship.
On June 1, the Ministry of Justice proposed a package of laws, called the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, to amend legislation on religious freedom. The ministry did not conduct prior consultations with religious organizations or the governmental Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities before proposing the legislation. Numerous members of religious minority groups and civil society organizations stated there were positive developments in the proposed legislation, including the removal of unclear registration requirements and the mention of “soul-hunting.” They expressed particular concern, however, about the apparent intention of the government to remove the AAC from being covered by the draft law. They also expressed concerns the draft law stipulated religious unions may receive funding from abroad and may not finance their spiritual centers and political parties located outside of the territory of the Republic of Armenia. Proposed government monitoring of religious groups and unclear articles in the draft pertaining to NGOs were other concerns.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) reviewed the draft package of laws following an official request from human rights advocate Arman Tatoyan. The ODIHR opinion issued on September 29 noted the draft legislation contained some major improvements in terms of compliance with international human rights standards, including adoption of some of the key recommendations made in previous ODIHR-Venice Commission joint opinions on Armenian legislation pertaining to freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR stated, however, that further amendments were needed to ensure the draft’s full compliance with international standards and OSCE “human dimension” commitments. Key ODHIR recommendations included an explicit statement that the AAC must fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law; the replacement of “state security” with the term “public safety” to remove potential limitations on the freedom to manifest thought, conscience, and religion or belief; removal of the obligation for religious organizations to maintain records of their members; and the removal of the prohibition on foreign funding for religious organizations.
On November 30, following the ODIHR review, the Ministry of Justice presented to the religious community an updated draft of the legislative package. According to religious freedom experts and many members of the religious community, even though the updated package specifically included AAC as a subject of the law, in some respects the revised version was more problematic than the previous draft because it was clearly aimed at controlling religious organizations and limiting freedom of religion. According to the preliminary assessment by the Center for Religion and Law, a local NGO, the revised draft included many provisions stricken from previous drafts by the Venice Commission and ODIHR. The updated draft Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations included more than a dozen grounds (many of them vague and open for interpretation) for banning expression of freedom of religion, including if such expression undermined state security, weakened the country’s defense capacity, preached religious fanaticism, engaged in other illegal or immoral acts, was carried out for mercenary purposes, or occurred in the vicinity of educational facilities. The draft also banned foreign funding, included mandatory public reporting requirements and increased government supervision, with the possibility of suspending the organization for failure to comply with such reporting requirements, and numerous other provisions that critics said were excessive and restrictive. According to representatives of evangelical churches, such provisions could be selectively applied to target “unwanted” minority religious groups. The government sent the draft to the Venice Commission for an assessment in November.
Some human rights activists, religious minorities, and atheists continued to express concern over the government’s inclusion of the AAC in many areas of public life, and the public education system in particular, as well as its granting permission to the AAC to disseminate materials in schools with material equating AAC affiliation with the national identity.
Yezidi community representatives continued to report their dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” In December 2016, the Sinjar Yezidi National Union NGO addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan voicing concern that the state violated the freedom of religion of Yezidi children by carrying out Christian indoctrination and conversion of the non-Christian population through the HAC course as a mandatory school subject. The Ministry of Education and Science stated, however, it did not receive any complaints against the teaching of the HAC course.
Several non-AAC religious groups said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools. For instance, representatives from the Word of Life Church said, “The 1,700-year activity of the Armenian Church is an integral part of the history of the Armenian people, so we have no objection to the teaching of the Armenian Church history in schools. At the same time, it is important that neutral and respectful attitudes toward other denominations be maintained, and pupils of different church affiliations not be subjected to preaching.” Others, however, including NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC publicly voiced concerns. 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, there were no AAC clergy members teaching the course during the 2016-17 academic year, only lay teachers; however, media reports stated that some AAC clergy continued to teach the HAC course. Reportedly teachers of Armenian language, literature, and history courses also organized visits to AAC religious sites. According to media reports, AAC clergy also visited state-funded kindergartens, including during celebrations of religious holidays, and organized visits of kindergarten classes to AAC churches.
Critics of the HAC course said it “constituted church indoctrination disguised as history.” NGOs and other religious groups cited the focus on the Bible and AAC traditions and language such as “we the Armenians are Christian people,” and “thanks to the AAC, Christianity has become the inseparable part of the national identity of the Armenian people” in fifth and sixth grade textbooks. They also said the HAC course sometimes characterized other religious groups in disparaging or inaccurate ways. For example, while describing Islam, the textbook includes the following, “Getting acquainted with the Bible, as well as the Jewish and Christian religions, Muhammad declared himself a prophet and beginning in 610, started to preach in the manner he understood and established a new religion.” NGOs also noted the eighth grade textbook presented the activities of Catholic missionaries in a negative light, including quotes such as “Catholic propaganda created especially horrible devastation in the Armenian communities in Europe.” NGO critics said the ninth grade book presented evangelical movements as a threat to the AAC, accusing other religious groups of “soul-hunting,” while the eleventh grade textbook states, “Armenians are Christian by faith and Apostolic by belief.”
On January 24, in a Facebook press conference with Radio Free Europe, Minister of Education Levon Mkrtchyan was asked about AAC preaching in schools and the requirement in the HAC course that graduates of high schools, including Yezidis and other non-Christians, participate in AAC national religious holidays and understand their meaning. In response, the minister quoted the article of the law stating the AAC had an exclusive right to preach on the territory of the country and minorities could preach within their own communities. The minister also said, “We are people living under the auspices of the AAC.” In a different video aired on May 29, the minister said those Yezidi community representatives whom he had met did not voice concerns about the HAC course, but rather, about the preservation of their language. The minister added he was prepared to incorporate information on Yezidis and Kurds in the schools where there are minorities “but for the entire Armenia, naturally not.”
On November 1, Epress.am, an independent online outlet focused on human rights reporting, published a story stating a professor of Armenian Language and Literature at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) State University had told her students she would conduct an exam at an AAC church and therefore all female students must cover their hair during the exam. Another student was removed from her class for saying he was an atheist.
Based on a Ministry of Education pilot program launched in 2012, school administrations had the option to include an additional course, entitled History of the AAC/Christian Education, in their curriculum for grades two through four. Once a school chose this option, the course became mandatory for students in those grades. During the year, 76 schools followed this option.
Human rights activists expressed concern about the impact of government statements and policies, including changes to the constitution in 2016, further linking the AAC with the state and potentially marginalizing religious minorities. For instance, Eduard Sharmazanov, the vice speaker of parliament from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, said in response to criticism of the AAC by a former official, “the only right investment in Armenia is to build a church … it’s a good thing, what should the investors do? Should we let the cults build churches instead? Yes, the Apostolic Church is our only holy church, and, in fact, we need to increase the hours of Armenian Church History taught at schools, in addition, it should be taught both at the university level and in our own lives.” Responding to a journalist’s question about soldiers being forced to pray in the army, Sharmazanov responded, “They are not forced. That’s the right thing to do, and it should be done, that’s not a violation of rights. This is not prostitution or erotica. It is true that soldiers pray in the army, we ought to start doing the same in the parliament, and we must have our spiritual awakening everywhere.” In his remarks Sharmazanov also said, “Nation and church are united, as Armenian and Christian are synonymous,” and in reference to the AAC, he said, “This is our state Church.” On December 8, at the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the army’s chaplaincy program, Minister of Defense Vigen Sargsyan said, “The Church cannot be separate either from the state or the army. This is prescribed in our constitution, legislation, and most importantly, in the heart of every Armenian.”
Several minority religious groups reported their members preferred not to publicize their religious affiliation while in military service, although conscripts continued to be encouraged to declare their religion when beginning their service. There were no reports by religious minority groups of abuses during the military service of their community members connected to their faith; one group reported a positive attitude towards evangelical Christians in the army, including from AAC chaplains. According to the government, no religious groups other than the AAC presented requests 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.
On October 12, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been unjustly convicted for refusing to perform alternative service under military supervision and determined the government must provide conscientious objectors with “an alternative military service of a genuinely civilian nature.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses were in 2011 to two and half years in prison and released in 2013. The government implemented an alternative civilian service not controlled by the military later that year.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 161 of their members completed alternative civilian service for conscientious objection by the end of the year, up from 17 members in 2016. As of December, 105 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said the state committee responsible for coordinating and reviewing the applications for alternative service continued to be cooperative, and the program worked well. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the directors of alternative civilian service locations had expressed their satisfaction with the program.
On October 11, during public hearings at the National Assembly, Avetik Ishkhanyan of the NGO Helsinki Committee asked Minister of Defense Sargsyan about atheists and non-AAC followers who were “forced to pray in the army.” The minister replied he was unaware of any case in which a soldier was forced to pray or be baptized. The minister said he would punish those who violated the law, while stating, “I consider an absolute the value that the Armenian Apostolic Church creates in our general system of values.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to face difficulties in building places of worship because of interference of local officials throughout the country. According to Witnesses, representatives from mayors’ offices openly stated on numerous occasions they would not permit Jehovah’s Witnesses to build a place of worship in their town or city. In particular, Jehovah’s Witnesses encountered difficulty obtaining approval of the required architectural planning studies and in obtaining building and occupancy permits. At year’s end, Witnesses had three pending cases before the ECHR disputing the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said they continued to pursue legal avenues for the protection of their rights and tried to maintain a dialogue with the government. They reported they continued to receive police protection while engaging in their public ministry both in Yerevan and in the regions and discerned a continued improved attitude on the part of government authorities toward their members.
According to various religious groups and NGOs advocating for religious tolerance, government rhetoric equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel discrimination against religious organizations other than the AAC. In a June 8 interview published in the Religions.am portal of religious news maintained by the NGO Collaboration for Democracy, the pastor of the Rhema Pentecostal Church, Karen Khachatryan, discussed the reasons behind what he said was the marginalization of religious organizations other than the AAC and their absence from public discourse. According to Khachatryan, the churches of the evangelical family remained outside the public eye due to a number of factors, including the role of the AAC, the biased attitude of the state, and unprofessional media. Other minority Christian groups reported they had the freedom to worship provided they did so discreetly and limited their activities to their own premises and community. They said attempting to expand beyond those premises or attempting to expand their existing membership through proselytizing could potentially lead to harassment or discrimination in school or the workplace. For this reason, the groups said, they kept their activities low-profile and exercised self-censorship.
The minister of foreign affairs initiated a conference on November 22 in Yerevan entitled, “Preventing and Countering Hate Crimes against Christians and Members of other Religious Groups – Perspectives from the OSCE and Beyond,” hosted by OSCE/ODIHR with the purpose of addressing persecution of Christians in the OSCE and elsewhere. The minister noted that Armenia was the “first country to adopt Christianity as a national state religion.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report instances of physical harassment toward their members, unlike the previous year; however, they reported 10 cases of verbal harassment while engaging in their public ministry. In some cases, individuals overturned literature carts, causing minor damage. Following what the Jehovah’s Witnesses said were prompt responses from police officers on duty in the area, the unidentified offenders did not interfere with the group’s activity again.
A 2017 Pew Research Center survey released in May found 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is important to be part of the Armenian Apostolic Church in order to truly share the national identity of the country” and 84 percent expressed the view that “their culture is superior to others.” Most respondents said they belonged to the AAC.
Many minority Christian groups and NGOs reported a trend over the past several years toward positive or neutral coverage of minority religious groups in many online and print media outlets, mostly private. According to a minority Christian group, however, most broadcast media outlets, including public television, avoided coverage of minority religious groups and their activities, while some media outlets and blogs continued to label minority religious groups as “sects” that threatened national security. According to media sources, many of the self-defined “experts” and authors of such materials were pro-Russia, and they increased their negative rhetoric following the forced closure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Russia in July. These “experts” said the West funded various “sects” that pursued political goals and aimed to destabilize the country. According to local NGOs, the rhetoric was consistent with general hatemongering against the West by these individuals and was aimed at discrediting universal values and human rights, including freedom of conscience and belief. One of the main “experts” was Alexander Amaryan, who was listed as an expert of the Institute of Public Diplomacy, an educational facility funded by the Russian government and affiliated with the Collective Security Treaty Organization Academy in Armenia.
There were instances of negative media coverage on the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the year. An article in Zhoghovurd, titled “Jehovah’s Witnesses have increased” said many Jehovah’s Witnesses were living in Tavush Province bordering Azerbaijan, which is “a threat to our national security given the fighting with Azerbaijan because Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to take arms.” The paper stated Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally banned in Azerbaijan and Russia, while in Armenia the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses is growing.
On November 16, the official website of the Ararat Diocese of the AAC republished an editorial from its official print biweekly Shoghakn Araratyan entitled “When it’s demanded to tolerate everything,” in which the author compared religious and sexual minorities with viruses. “Absolute truth becomes irrelevant; under the names of ‘divine texts’ Buddhist, Krishna cult ideas are spread, and our society, illiterate in the sphere of religion, devours with pleasure those beautifully packed formulations. European standards require from us not to notice that the suggested path leads to the spiritual ruination of suicide attempts, human sacrifices, participation in sermons with shouting and screaming… professing treacherous ideas.”
The AAC also received negative media coverage in some opposition and independent print and online media outlets, as well as in social media.
On October 16, Epress.am published an interview with two women who said that during job interviews with a prominent private candy company, they were questioned about their religious views, including when they had last visited a church and whether they were atheists or members of “cults.”
On October 27, International Religious Freedom Day, the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), a local NGO, held the closing ceremony of its three-year program aimed at promoting religious tolerance and nondiscrimination. As part of the event, EPF held an awards ceremony for the best coverage of issues related to the freedom of religion or belief. The EPF received 32 written articles, 14 videos, and 12 caricatures as submissions for the awards. Throughout the program, the EPF trained hundreds of journalists on religious tolerance with its partner NGO. According to human rights NGOs and religious minority representatives, the program positively impacted media coverage of religious issues.
Construction continued on Quba Mere Diwane Temple, which the media called the world’s largest Yezidi temple. Located in the small village of Aknalich, the Yezidi community said it would become the spiritual center for the country’s Yezidis. In an international meeting in November, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said, “Historically being situated on the crossroads of different civilizations, Armenia has cultivated deeply rooted traditions of coexistence and respect towards other cultures and religions. That is why Armenia preserves a rich cultural heritage that includes, among others, a Hellenistic era temple, some of the oldest churches in the world, a medieval Jewish cemetery, and an 18th century mosque and soon will host the world’s largest Yezidi temple.”
During a September 8 meeting among Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, Chairman of the Caucasian Muslims Board, and Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, the three religious leaders signed a joint statement urging peace in the region.
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. Embassy officials met with a representative of the Ministry of Defense to discuss religious tolerance in the army and the legal restrictions on members of religious groups joining the military. 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; to foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups; and to explore cooperative solutions to those problems. The Ambassador raised with the Ombudsman’s Office and other government officials concerns of the religious community with the proposed legislation on religious freedom. In October the Ambassador made two speeches at the schools for the Republican Party of Armenia and the opposition bloc Bright Armenia where, among other human rights issues, he brought up the importance of nondiscrimination in regard to religion and belief.
The Ambassador held frank and productive meetings with leaders of the AAC and engaged them in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. Embassy officials attended conferences on the issue of religious tolerance; visited a Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian village; attended a religious celebration of the Jewish community and the celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Bahaullah, the founder of the Bahai Faith; and held regular meetings with representatives of religious and ethnic/religious minorities, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Yezidis, Apostolic Assyrians, and Bahais. In these meetings, embassy officials and religious group representatives discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, including minority religious group concerns. Embassy officials attended the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-hosted OSCE workshop on discrimination against Christians. They also met with civil society groups to discuss concerns about the HAC courses taught in public schools.
Embassy officials participated in the EPF Annual Media Award jury and the ceremony to support religious tolerance in the media. 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. A Melbourne court affirmed the right of a Sikh student to wear a religious turban to a Christian school even though the turban was not consistent with the school’s obligatory uniform. The political platform of the One Nation Party, which had four senators in the federal parliament, included cessation of Muslim immigration and limits on some Islamic practices. Parliament passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage on December 7. Former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott expressed concern prior to passage that the legislation provided inadequate protection of religious freedom. The attorney general said current law provided adequate protections for religious freedom. The prime minister stated in his July National Security Statement that the country’s national identity is defined by a commitment to a shared set of values, including freedom and democracy, rather than by reference to issues such as religion or race. The government continued to run extensive programs to support religious pluralism.
In April a Greek Orthodox Christian wearing a large cross reportedly was beaten by men of “Middle Eastern appearance.” The attackers reportedly ripped the crucifix off his neck and stomped on it. In May the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory organization, said “there is consistent evidence that Muslims are subject to higher rates of racism than pertains for all other racial and religious groups within the Australian community … the headscarf has become a lightning rod for attacking Muslim women. The Muslim community is disproportionately subject to ‘hate speech’ and discrimination in employment and the delivery of goods and services.” The Australian Christian Lobby organization said its activities were disrupted during the period preceding a national federal government-run postal survey on same-sex marriage by threats of violence.
The U.S. embassy and the U.S. Consulates General in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney regularly engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. Embassy and consulate general officers at all levels, including the Charge d’Affaires, engaged with religious communities and promoted religious tolerance in person and through social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 23.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, including 22.6 percent of residents who are Roman Catholic and 13.3 percent Anglican. Buddhists constitute 2.4 percent of the population, Muslims 2.6 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent either did not state a religious affiliation or stated other religious affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.
The 2016 census indicated indigenous persons constitute 2.8 percent of the population. The most recent breakdown for indigenous population remained the 2011 census, which estimated that 1 percent of indigenous respondents practice traditional indigenous religions. Among this group, affiliation with a traditional indigenous religion is higher in very remote areas (6 percent) than in all other areas (less than 1 percent). Approximately 60 percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 20 percent report having no religious affiliation. The remainder either did not state a religious affiliation or stated other religious affiliations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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.
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 have recourse under federal discrimination laws or through the court system 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; however, seven of the eight states and territories have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s religion or ethnoreligious background. South Australia is the only state or territory that does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. All other states and territories have independent agencies to mediate allegations of religious discrimination.
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 Australia Tax Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO checks. 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.
The government permits religious education in public schools, generally taught by volunteers using approved curricula; parents may decide whether their children will attend or not. There is no national standard for approving religious curricula, which happens at the state and local levels.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In September a Melbourne court ruled that a Christian school that accepted half of its pupils from non-Christian families could not reasonably exclude a five-year-old Sikh boy from attending classes on account of his parents’ belief that he should wear a turban. The court said the parents and school were free to negotiate appropriate new agreements to the school’s uniform code, possibly including and not limited to colors of all clothing worn, but that the boy’s turban worn for religious reasons could not be excluded.
The One Nation Party had four senators in the federal parliament and maintained a platform calling for ceasing Muslim immigration and admission of Muslim refugees, banning the burqa and niqab in public places, installing surveillance cameras in all mosques, and prohibiting members of parliament from being sworn in under the Quran. In August One Nation Party leader and federal Senator Pauline Hanson wore a burqa in the senate chamber and called on the government “to ban the burqa.” Attorney General George Brandis immediately rejected the call and called Hanson’s action a “stunt.”
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.
In September three men from the United Patriots group were convicted of inciting contempt and ridicule of Muslims following a 2015 event protesting the construction of a mosque in Bendigo, located 90 miles from Melbourne. They were each fined $2,000 Australian dollars ($1,600). Construction on the mosque began in August.
The Victorian State Government Multicultural Commission published a report in December 2016 on the debate over construction of the mosque in Bendigo. The study concluded that the Bendigo Muslim community faced abuse. Muslim children reported being bullied at school, and women wearing the hijab said they were shouted at by people passing by in their cars. The commission said it hoped the findings of the report could help other regional cities better engage their Muslim communities.
In New South Wales (NSW), a Muslim organization called the Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir said Muslim men were permitted to strike a disobedient wife as long as it was soft and “symbolic.” The women faced backlash for their video post from the NSW police commissioner and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who said, “If you want to beat up your wife, you can’t become a citizen of this nation.”
The government continued to provide funding for security installations –lighting, fencing, closed-circuit television cameras, and others – 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.
The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, The People of Australia, was based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion and included religious tolerance as a component. The government provided a range of youth-focused early intervention, outreach, and education programs to promote religious tolerance as well as “deradicalization” programs for prison inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses.
Former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott expressed concern that the proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage provided inadequate protection of religious freedom. The attorney general said current law provided adequate protections for religious freedom. Parliament passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage on December 7.
A multiparty group of legislators in Victoria did not allow a vote on legislation introduced in 2016 that would protect LGBTI students, employees, and job seekers at faith-based schools.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In April a 30-year-old Greek Orthodox Christian wearing a large cross outside his clothing reportedly was beaten on a train in Western Sydney by a group of young men of “Middle Eastern appearance.” The attackers reportedly ripped the crucifix off his neck and stomped on it while uttering a religious profanity.
In May the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory organization, said “there is consistent evidence that Muslims are subject to higher rates of racism than pertains for all other racial and religious groups within the Australian community … the headscarf has become a lightning rod for attacking Muslim women. The Muslim community is disproportionately subject to ‘hate speech’ and discrimination in employment and the delivery of goods and services.”
The Australian Christian Lobby organization said its April conference in Sydney was disrupted and it was forced to cancel an earlier conference in Sydney due to threats of violence during the period preceding a national postal survey on same-sex marriage. The national headquarters of the Australian Christian Lobby organization in Canberra was severely damaged by a car explosion and fire attack in December 2016. The attacker told police that he opposed religion and the organization’s views on sexuality.
In September an employee in Canberra who opposed same-sex marriage due to her Christian beliefs was fired by her employer for posting on her personal social media page that she intended to vote against the measure to legalize same-sex marriage in the national postal survey.
In June a group of female Muslim students attending a career expo at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre were reportedly made to leave the event because other participants felt threatened by their wearing of hijabs in the aftermath of the May 22 Manchester bombing.
According to media reports, an academic study published in February using data gathered in 2015 and 2016 found Australians less anti-Muslim than most commentators had previously stated. According to the study’s interpretation of a survey, 9 percent of respondents showed “high or very high Islamophobia,” while nearly 70 percent of respondents showed low or very low levels.
The Q Society – a self-proclaimed “Islam-critical” organization – held fundraising dinners in February headlined by two members of the federal parliament. The group’s leaders said that “there is more support than ever across Australia and the world for the Islam-critical Movement.” The Q Society opposed halal certification programs and construction of mosques and advocated for a moratorium on immigration from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The group said it had more than 1,000 members in the country and held monthly meetings in each Australian state.
In August a group called the Antipodean Resistance posted fliers at three Melbourne universities and the Australian National University in Canberra. The fliers featured anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic messages, including, “Stop the Hordes” and “Reject Jewish Poison.” Political leaders and educators denounced the fliers. The group also said it placed swastika stickers at the University of Sydney.
In August swastikas and racist graffiti were found inside the University of Sydney Business School and the International Student Lounge. The graffiti was removed the same day, and the university said it was working with police to identify the perpetrators.
In August three men were charged with a December 2016 firebomb attack on an Islamic community center in Melbourne in which the words “Islamic State” were scrawled on the building. The blaze destroyed the building, which was a center of worship for the Shia community. Police stated that these anti-Shia acts were “inspired” by the Islamic State. All three were charged with engaging in a terrorist attack, an offense that can carry a sentence of life in prison.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 230 anti-Semitic incidents of threats or abuse during the year, up from 210 in the previous year. In May paper slips and leaflets containing content that denied the occurrence of the Holocaust were distributed on cars and noticeboards across the University of Western Australia campus.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Embassy in Canberra and Consulates General in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney met with government officials from the federal and state-level departments of social services and multicultural affairs to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance programs.
U.S. officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, engaged a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups, including the Islamic Council of Victoria and the Australia Arab Association of Perth. The embassy and consulates general used social media platforms to increase awareness of U.S. policy and activities supportive of religious freedom through posting and sharing of articles and events.
The Consulate General in Melbourne hosted its eighth annual Youth Iftar and welcomed Muslim and non-Muslim guests from political, legal, sports, government, entertainment, educational, and faith backgrounds. The dinner facilitated young leaders in meeting a diverse group of people for discussions including religious diversity.
A representative from the Consulate General in Perth gave an address at the Australia Arab Association’s Multicultural Eid al-Adha events to celebrate diversity.
Members of the Consulate General in Sydney attended interfaith dinners hosted by leaders of Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim community to discuss tolerance and inclusion.
Historical and modern constitutional and legal documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups if perceivable by a larger number of persons. The law divides recognized religious groups into three categories with varying rights; 16 groups recognized as religious societies have the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” Muslim groups criticized a ban on face coverings that went into force in October; violators were subject to a fine of 150 euros ($180). Scientologists and some other religious minorities said several government-funded organizations continued to advise the public against associating with them, calling the groups “cults.” A government-funded study stated one third of mosques nurtured extremist views. The government worked with the Muslim community in a campaign against extremism and with a Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide Holocaust training for teachers. Members of Muslim and Jewish groups and NGOs expressed concerns over what they considered anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment within the Freedom Party (FPOe), which became a junior partner in a coalition government in December. In April the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
The head of the Jewish Community – “Israelitische Kultusgemeinde” (IKG) – reported a record 503 anti-Semitic incidents, including five assaults, during the year, up slightly from 2016 and 97 percent more than in 2014. The Muslim community reported 253 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, a 62 percent increase over 2015. Most reported anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents involved threats, hate speech, and vandalism, and, in the case of Muslims, discrimination. In April an Afghan asylum seeker allegedly stabbed a Christian woman after she read from a Bible at a migrant center. An NGO attributed 61 percent of discrimination cases in the country to “Islamophobia.” Courts convicted seven individuals of anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi activity and two others for speaking out against Muslims or Islam, generally handing down fines or sentences, some of which they suspended. The Supreme Court upheld an injunction against a publication accused of slandering Holocaust victims for calling survivors of the Nazi-era Mauthausen concentration camp “criminals.” More than 300 imams issued a declaration in June condemning terrorism carried out in the name of Islam.
Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials to discuss religious groups’ concerns about issues of freedom of religion and religious intolerance and the integration of religious minorities, including with officials from the Departments of Integration and Dialogue of Cultures within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the Ministry of Interior. Topics included measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. They also met with religious group representatives, such as the leadership of the Islamic Faith Community (IGGIO), the IKG, the Roman Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Church of Scientology, to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. Embassy representatives participated in the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and spoke on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at public ceremonies.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.8 million (July 2017 estimate). According to religious groups and the government Austrian Integration Fund, Roman Catholics constitute 59 percent of the population and Muslims 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. Religious groups constituting less than 5 percent each include the Lutheran Church; Swiss Reformed Church (Evangelical Church-Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); Eastern Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, 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 Catholic Church, Protestant churches – specifically Lutheran and Presbyterian, called “Augsburg” and “Helvetic” confessions – the IGGIO, the Old Catholic Church, the IKG, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church of Austria, the Buddhist Community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Alevi Community in Austria, and the 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, and to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. 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 they 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 for instances where 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 wellbeing and 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. In order 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 been in existence 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 their group has 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 eight groups as confessional communities: the Bahai Faith, the Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, the Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu Community, the Islamic-Shia Community, the Old-Alevi Community in Austria, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).
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 their charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them, but confessional communities are not exempt from property taxes.
In order 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 status as associations.
Religious groups registered as associations have the right to function in public, but they may not provide religious instruction in schools or pastoral care in hospitals or prisons.
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. In order to become an association, groups have to submit a written statement citing their common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing and many of the same rights as confessional communities, such as the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services.
The law governing relations between the government and the IGGIO and Alevi 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, and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. 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 that is 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: the IGGIO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community or the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which began for the first time at the University of Vienna in the fall.
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 specifics, given that they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.
In May parliament adopted a law banning full-face covers 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. The law went into effect on October 1. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150 euro ($180) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.
The government funds religious instruction for children on a proportional basis in public schools, government-accredited private schools, and places of worship for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religious 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 religious classes. The government funds the instruction, and religious groups provide the instructors. 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 anti-bias 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 on various grounds, including 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 case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to 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 Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
Foreign religious workers for 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 do not require visas for either shorter visits or stays beyond 90 days.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Police continued to protect Jewish sites. Muslims said the ban on face veils in public violated basic rights. The city government in Vienna increased inspections of city-subsidized Islamic kindergartens after a study found “Islamic political influence” in several of them. A federally funded office continued to offer the public negative views about religious groups, such as Scientology, which it described as “cults.” A government-funded study stated one third of mosques nurtured extremist views. The foreign ministry worked with the IGGIO on a campaign against extremism. The education ministry worked with the international NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to provide Holocaust training for teachers. Jewish and Muslim groups and NGOs expressed concerns about what they regarded as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment in the FPOe, which joined a coalition government with the People’s Party in December. In April the government adopted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, which the IKG called a milestone in fighting anti-Semitism.
Some religious minority groups, such as the Unification Church, continued to complain the three-tier system of categorizing legally recognized religious groups only granted them second- or third-class status.
The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Law enforcement authorities stated the government provided the protection due to general concerns over the potential for anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions.
On various occasions, the IGGIO called on the Ministry of Justice to fund pastoral care for Muslims in prisons, where 46 IGGIO imams provided such care. According to the IGGIO, government funding would allow it to expand prison pastoral care. The ministry replied that it already funded social workers and representatives from the NGO De-radicalization Network to work with Muslim prisoners it considered extremists.
Muslim representatives expressed concern that the new ban on full-face coverings would push women wearing face veils into further isolation and, together with the Bar Association and Amnesty International, argued the law violated such basic rights as freedom of religion and expression. While characterizing the wearing of face veils in public as “socially undesirable,” the Catholic Church also criticized the ban as an “exaggerated legal prohibition.” A Viennese psychology student who was fined in October for covering her face while cycling announced she would challenge the ban before the Administrative Court.
On January 6, then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party advocated for a ban on headscarves for public servants, including teachers, reigniting public debate over displays of religious symbols in public. Kurz stated Christian crucifixes in classrooms should be allowed, as they symbolized the country’s “historic culture.” A representative of the IGGIO and a representative of the IKG both publicly opposed the headscarf ban proposal as discriminatory.
Approximately 2,000 persons participated in a February 4 demonstration against the stipulation in the government’s agenda, announced January 30, that women working as uniformed police, judges, or prosecutors were to be prohibited from wearing headscarves. Several Muslim groups, some of them affiliated with the IGGIO, staged the protests. The President of the Islamic Faith Community, Ibrahim Olgun, said the proposed ban for police, judges, and prosecutors would “pull the rug” out from under efforts to create a good working relationship between the government and the Muslim community.
In remarks made to schoolchildren in March and broadcast on television in April, President Alexander Van der Bellen expressed opposition to restrictions on clothing, telling the students women had the right to dress how they wanted and that “if this rampant Islamophobia continues … we must ask all women to wear a headscarf – all – out of solidarity with those who do it for religious reasons.” The president’s office said he believed restrictions were justified when applied to all religious symbols in certain circumstances, such as for female judges, where religious dress could raise questions about neutrality.
The government continued to apply a policy of banning headwear in official identification documents with an exception for religious purposes as long as the face was sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
In June the Vienna city government increased its inspections of the 150 Islamic kindergartens subsidized by the city after University of Vienna professor Ednan Aslan stated in a study of Islamic kindergartens he conducted in 2016 that there was political Islamic influence in several of them, and they were helping to create “parallel societies.”
The federal Office of Sect Issues continued to offer advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults.” The office was nominally independent but government funded, and the minister for family and youth appointed and supervised its head. Some Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered societal discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities.
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO working against some religious groups, such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public, and it provided 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. Several other 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 they considered to be negatively biased.
An amendment of transportation regulations in June stipulated the use of public roads and sidewalks for non-traffic purposes must not violate public safety and security. Based on the amendment, government representatives stated police could ban proselytizing by religious groups. There were no reports that police blocked such activity.
According to a study by the Austrian Integration Fund, financed by the Ministry for Europe, Integration, and Foreign Affairs and based on 16 mosques examined by the authors, one-third of the mosques examined were actively countering efforts to integrate Muslims by nurturing extremist views.
According to a George Washington University study, “The Muslim Brotherhood in Austria,” the Muslim Brotherhood had “substantial connections and influence” in the country, including over key functions affecting Muslim immigrants, such as in the IGGIO’s training institute for Islamic religion teachers. The study, which the Austrian Security Services commissioned, was done in cooperation with the University of Vienna and the Austrian Integration Fund and released in September. An official involved with the study stated the Muslim Brotherhood represented values that stood in contrast to the rule of law and promoted a political Islam that divided society. In reaction, FPOe Chair Heinz Christian Strache called for stricter action against radical Islamist activities. A Muslim youth leader privately rejected the report’s conclusions and methodology and complained about what he described as the “continuous drip” of biased studies against Muslims in the country. The organization Muslim Youth of Austria also rejected the study’s findings, which stated the organization received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the IGGIO, undertook an information campaign in mosques, Islamic organizations, and community centers, distributing written materials to convey the message that jihadism violated the principles of Islam.
The Ministry for Education and Women conducted teacher-training projects with the ADL. Seminars were available on Holocaust education, and Holocaust survivors talked to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
Chancellor Christian Kern as well as Catholic and Jewish representatives attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar in June to express support for the Muslim Community.
In July FPOe Member of Parliament Johannes Huebner announced he would not seek reelection in the October parliamentary election, following widespread protests over a 2016 statement he made that critics said contained anti-Semitic undertones. In a speech on “mass migration to Austria,” Huebner had referred to “so-called Holocaust victims” who were criticizing the FPOe.
On September 13, Norbert Hofer, FPOe Deputy Chair, presented an election platform for the October 15 parliamentary elections with rhetoric including a statement that “Islam is not part of Austria.” At the presentation, FPOe Chair Strache stated, “We must not become strangers in our own home country.” The party campaigned against immigration and “Islamization,” and FPOe billboards carried the slogan “Islamization must be stopped.”
Speaking to the press in September, Vienna City Councilor, and previous integration representative for the Islamic Community Omar al-Rawi stated, “When parties address the issue of Islam, it’s always in a negative context.”
Some local Jewish groups expressed concern about anti-Semitism in the FPOe.
In November FPOe Chair Strache suspended a local FPOe councilor in Styria for giving a “Heil Hitler” salute.
NGOs and Jewish and Muslim community members called on the People’s Party, which came in first place in the parliamentary elections, not to form a coalition government with the FPOe, which came in third. In October the Mauthausen Komitee, a group commemorating Nazi camp victims, published a list of what it said were at least 60 anti-Semitic and racist incidents involving FPOe figures since 2013. Ramazan Demir, a Vienna-based imam and a leading representative of the IGGIO, stated, “This election result is something we feared … There’s never been this much Islamophobia in Austria.” The NGO SOS Mitmensch (SOS Fellow Human Being) released a letter it wrote to People’s Party leader Kurz, citing allegations of FPOe officials’ involvement in right-wing extremist, and neo-Nazi activities.
The People’s Party formed a coalition with the FPOe, and the new government assumed office on December 18, with Kurz as Chancellor and FPOe leader Strache as Vice Chancellor. The new government’s coalition agreement included acknowledgement of the country’s role in the Holocaust and a pledge to fight anti-Semitism. As party chair, Strache had repeatedly called for zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or glorification of Nazism, most recently in the context of the presentation of the coalition government’s program.
IKG Vienna President Oskar Deutsch continued to express concerns about the FPOe, which he said was an anti-Semitic party, and its attempts to appeal to Jewish voters by rebranding itself as an anti-Muslim party.
Then-Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter established the special prosecutor’s office for right-wing extremism in April. The office focused on enforcing the law banning neo-Nazi activity.
The government made the Mauthausen Memorial Agency an independent government agency on January 1, providing it with a legal base to implement tasks mandated in a 2016 law, which set the goal of Holocaust commemoration and education as the agency’s prime task. Mauthausen was the country’s largest concentration camp during the Nazi era and became a national monument.
Chancellor Kern, during an April visit to Israel, met with Holocaust survivors of Austrian background. In a speech he emphasized his country’s responsibility for the “darkest chapters in Austria’s history” and its commitment to learn from its Nazi past and to combat anti-Semitism.
On April 25, the cabinet adopted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism. Then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz termed the decision an important signal to identify and combat anti-Semitism more easily with a commonly acknowledged definition. IKG Vienna President Deutsch welcomed the decision as a “milestone in combating anti-Semitism.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: The IKG reported a record 503 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, slightly more than in 2016 and 97 percent more than in 2014. Incidents included five assaults, as well as threats, insults, harassment, hate speech, and vandalism. According to the IKG, right-wing persons were responsible for almost a quarter of incidents and Muslims for another 10 percent. The IKG Vienna president expressed concern that it had become more socially acceptable to make anti-Semitic statements. The IGGIO reported 253 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, 62 percent more than in 2015. Most incidents involved discrimination, hate speech, verbal attacks, and vandalism. The Ministry of Interior reported 41 anti-Semitic and 38 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016. In April an Afghan refugee allegedly stabbed a Christian woman reading from a Bible at a migrant center. An NGO reported 61 percent of cases of discrimination in the country were due to “Islamophobia,” and female Muslim students were the targets in 73 percent of discrimination cases in schools. In January the Supreme Court upheld an injunction in a slander case against a publication, Aula, which had published an article calling survivors of the former Mauthausen concentration camp “criminals.” In June more than 300 imams condemned terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. Catholic and Muslim groups engaged in activities promoting interfaith understanding.
In April the interior ministry released statistics according to which there were 41 anti-Semitic and 28 anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in 2016, compared with 41 and 31 incidents, respectively, in 2015. The majority of cases involved hate speech on the internet. There were several cases of neo-Nazi-related hate speech, including on the internet, as well as cases of persons giving the Hitler salute or shouting Nazi slogans.
IKG Vienna President Deutsch expressed concerns that anti-Semitism remained at a “high but stable” level. The IKG’s Forum against Anti-Semitism said it received an all-time high of 503 reports of anti-Semitic incidents during the year, up from 477 in 2016 and 97 percent more than the 255 incidents reported in 2014. The 503 incidents included five physical assaults (down from seven in 2016), in addition to insults, verbal, written, and telephoned threats and harassment, complaints about the internet and social media, and vandalism. Insults and threats increased by 17 percent to 28, incidents involving the internet rose by 12 percent to 171, and those involving letters and telephone calls rose 3 percent to 203. Cases involving vandalism or damage to property declined by 25 percent to 51. The other 45 incidents fell under the category of “other.” .
According to the Forum Against Anti-Semitism, increased awareness and reporting was one of several factors that explained the eight-fold increase in anti-Semitic incidents recorded since 2006, but there was also a declining stigma associated with anti-Semitic views. The IKG noted rising fears of a “new Islamic anti-Semitism” from Muslim refugees, although it still attributed the majority of anti-Semitic incidents to right-wing groups. The forum said that of the 503 incidents reported during the year, right-wing persons accounted for 24 percent, Muslims for 10 percent, left-wing persons 3 percent, and unspecified perpetrators for the other 62 percent. IKG President Deutsch expressed concern that there were fewer inhibitions among the anti-Semitic perpetrators in voicing anti-Semitism, and that it had generally become more socially acceptable to make such statements.
The IGGIO’s documentation center reported the number of reports of anti-Muslim incidents it received had been increasing since it began collecting such statistics in mid-2014. In 2016, the center received 253 reports of anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 156 cases in 2015. According to the center, 98 percent of all incidents were directed against women. Two-thirds of cases involved verbal attacks and hate speech, the rest graffiti, discrimination, and other acts. The center stated it believed a large number of cases were related to the 2016 presidential election campaign.
In April according to the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan stabbed and injured a Christian woman in a migrant center after he heard her reading from the Bible. Her alleged attacker was a man who the NGO said was offended that Christian residents of the center had invited the woman to discuss the Bible.
According to the Equal Rights Agency, 173 cases of religious discrimination came before the equal rights commissioner in 2016, compared with 131 cases in 2015. The agency did not provide additional information on the nature of the cases, the groups targeted, or how it addressed these cases.
Female Muslim students made up more than 73 percent of the total number of individuals subjected to discrimination at schools in 2016, according to a report by the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education. The report listed a total of 47 cases of discrimination in schools and attributed 61 percent of these cases to “Islamophobia.”
A report by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency on the situation of Muslims in Europe released in September found Austria was among those EU member states to which Muslims felt least attached. The report, for which only Muslims of Turkish background in the country were interviewed, said that, on a scale of 1-5, where five was the highest, Muslims’ sense of attachment to the country was 3.5, while the EU average was 4.1. On the other hand, according to the report, only 15 percent of Muslims interviewed in the country complained about ethnic profiling by police – substantially below the EU average of 32 percent.
Bishop Manfred Scheuer resigned as president of the Catholic organization Pax Christi because of expressions of anti-Semitism within the organization and at a Pax Christi event, according to media reports. Pax Christi stated it had issued statements critical of Israel but denied they had contained anti-Semitic undertones.
In January the Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction against a publication alleged to be slandering Holocaust survivors, forbidding German author Manfred Duswald from calling Mauthausen concentration camp survivors “criminals and a widespread nuisance.” Duswald made the statements in a 2015 article that appeared in the monthly Aula, a publication the Vienna-based anti-Semitism NGO Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance called an extreme right-wing pamphlet and “FPOe-leaning.” Holocaust survivors and Green Party Member of Parliament Harald Walser filed a collective lawsuit on civil law claims and media law charges in 2016 after a Graz court in early 2016 dismissed an investigation against the paper under the anti-neo-Nazi law, sparking a protest among the Mauthausen survivors.
In January a court in Upper Austria State convicted a man who had sold pro-Nazi songs on an internet forum, which authorities had shut down in 2012, of engaging in neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic activity and sentenced him to 33 months in prison.
In January a court in Vienna convicted a man of incitement for calling women wearing burkas “garbage bags” on his website and sentenced him to a five-month suspended prison sentence.
In March a court in Salzburg convicted a man of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic activity for flying a kite with Nazi symbols and sentenced him to two years in prison. The court sentenced his accomplice to a three-month suspended prison sentence in June.
In July a court in Lower Austria State convicted a man of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic activity for performing a Nazi salute and sentenced him to two years in prison.
In July a court in Innsbruck convicted and fined a local FPOe official on charges of denouncing religious teachings for calling Islam an “insane ideology” on the internet.
In August a Vienna court convicted a soccer fan of engaging in neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic activity for performing a Nazi salute during a soccer game and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.
In September a court in Vorarlberg convicted a German citizen to a 10-month suspended prison sentence and a fine after convicting him of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic activity. He had sent a picture on a messaging service of headwear adorned with the swastika and skulls, with the message: “Dear refugees, you will recognize your caseworker by these hats.”
In September a court in Carinthia State convicted a man who had posted a call on Facebook for the reopening of a Hitler-era concentration camp and the gassing of migrants there, of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic activity and sentenced him to a 14-month suspended prison sentence and a fine.
In September the public prosecutor’s office in Innsbruck launched an investigation of charges of neo-Nazi activity against a local FPOe official accused of possessing Nazi memorabilia. The Tyrolean chapter of the FPOe expelled the official from the party.
On June 14, more than 300 imams signed a joint declaration condemning international terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and appealing to all Muslims to contribute to living together peacefully in the country.
In July the Catholic Church established the Commission on World Religions, consisting of 21 experts tasked with promoting interreligious dialogue, in particular with Islam. The commission focused on issues of joint concern for Christians and Muslims, including human rights and the rule of law.
In September the IGGIO staged a human chain in Vienna, from an Islamic center to a Catholic church, as a symbol of religious tolerance and mutual respect. Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist representatives participated.
On November 9, to commemorate victims of anti-Jewish pogroms, leaders of Christian churches and the IKG sent an open letter entitled “Never Again” to the newly elected parliament, expressing concern about “flared-up thinking” indicating anti-Semitic tendencies and other prejudices and appealing to members to reject it. Other commemoration events included a vigil and “light of hope” march through Vienna and prayers in churches.
Fourteen Christian churches, among them the 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.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, including with the Department for Integration and Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the Ministry of Interior, to discuss religious freedom. Topics discussed included the concerns of religious groups, the integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Embassy representatives continued to meet frequently with religious leaders and community members throughout the country, including with the leadership and membership of the IGGIO, IKG, Catholic Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, and other Christian organizations, as well as the Church of Scientology, to discuss the relationship between these groups and the government, discriminatory or inflammatory incidents, and the role of religious education in encouraging interfaith tolerance.
The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to promote religious tolerance and combat anti-Semitism. Embassy representatives participated in the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and Holocaust education and advocated continued efforts of the agency to pursue increased youth outreach to combat anti-Semitism among youth.
The Charge d’Affaires hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for the Muslim community, where he spoke on the importance of religious freedom and religious tolerance.
In an interview at a May ceremony marking the end of the Second World War and the liberation from National Socialism, a senior embassy official emphasized the principal lesson was the importance of guaranteeing religious tolerance. The Charge d’Affaires and the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, headquartered in Vienna, attended the commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in May, and the embassy Charge d’Affaires made remarks noting the importance of upholding religious freedom.
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;” and hinder secular education. In June the law was amended to allow foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services. Local human rights groups and others stated that the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. The reported total incarcerated at the end of the year was 80, compared with 86 in 2016. In January and December courts sentenced leaders of the Muslim Unity Movement and others arrested in a 2015 police operation in Nardaran to long prison terms on charges many activists considered fabricated, including inciting religious hatred and terrorism. In July authorities sentenced a theologian to three years in prison for performing a religious ceremony after studying Islam abroad. 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. Local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques on the pretext of repairing them but said the actual reason was government concerns the mosques served as places for the propagation of extremist views. 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 training sessions throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism.
Local religious experts and civil society representatives stated societal tolerance continued for traditional minority religious groups, including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, citizens often viewed with suspicion and mistrust groups that many considered nontraditional. A limited public debate took place on social media over the proper place of religion in public life after a draft of an alleged “creationist” textbook was posted online; subsequently the Ministry of Education modified the passages offensive to secular leaning academics.
The U.S. Ambassador 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 Ambassador 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 Ambassador and embassy spokespersons issued public statements urging the government and society to uphold religious tolerance and acceptance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at10 million (July 2017 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church, Georgian Orthodox Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Molokans, Roman Catholic Church, other Christians, including evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Bahais. Other groups include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) 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 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 encompass 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. Registration of a religious community 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 it does not specify any 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) oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.
The law bans activities by unregistered religious groups, which are punishable by fines or imprisonment.
While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments. The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs) or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions intending to t change the constitutional order or violating 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 cases in 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.
On June 22, President Ilham Aliyev approved amendments to the religious freedom law that allow foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services. Passed by parliament on May 20, the amendments also allow the CMB to grant special permission to citizens who have received Islamic education abroad to perform Namaz (ritual prayers) and other Islamic rituals.
The law stipulates punishments for individuals who lead Islamic religious ceremonies in violation of the restrictions against citizens receiving unauthorized religious education abroad. The penalties include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 AZN ($580) up to 5,000 AZN ($2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
The law also restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.
According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 AZN ($2,900 to $4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 to 9,000 AZN ($4,100 to $5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses.
There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. Individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government are not allowed to hold official religious positions, preach, or lead sermons after returning to the country.
Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.
The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.
According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to the legislature. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in positions of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.
The constitution prohibits “spreading and 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.
Summary paragraph: The government continued to physically abuse, arrest and imprison religious activists who local human rights groups deemed to be political prisoners according to local human rights groups and others. There were an estimated 80 individuals incarcerated as of the end of the year. In January and December the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced leaders of the Muslim Unity Movement and others arrested in a 2015 police operation in Nardaran to long prison terms. In July the Masalli District Court sentenced a theologian to three years in prison for performing a religious ceremony after studying Islam outside the country. Authorities detained, fined and 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 the authorities required to reregister continued to face difficulties doing so. Local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques on the pretext of repairing them but said the actions were actually due to government concerns the individuals in mosques promulgated extremist views. The government continued to restrict 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 organized conferences and took other steps to combat what it considered to be religious extremism and to promote religious tolerance.
On September 30, authorities detained 30 men who, in violation of local edict, were marching towards the Imamzadeh Mosque in Ganja to commemorate Ashura. Police charged four individuals with hooliganism and for resisting the police and placed them in pretrial detention. Human rights lawyers reported the police severely beat many of the detainees in custody.
Government authorities continued to arrest and incarcerate individuals for their religious activities. Local human rights groups considered many of these individuals political prisoners. There were no reliable figures on the number of religious activists detained or released during the year, although the estimated total incarcerated as of the end of the year was 80, compared with 86 in 2016, according to data collected by the Working Group for the Unified List of Political Prisoners and other NGOs.
On January 25, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada and his deputy Abbas Huseynov to 20 years in prison following the December 2016 police raid in the village of Nardaran. The court sentenced 16 others associated with the case to prison terms ranging from 10 to 19 years. In July a court denied appeals to overturn the sentences. On December 28, the Baku Court sentenced another group of individuals arrested in connection to the special police operation in Nardaran to prison terms of 12 to 15 years. Lawyers for the convicted men publicly called the verdicts and sentences illegal and said they would appeal them. Authorities charged the group with terrorism, murder, calling for the overthrow of the government, and inciting religious hatred. Human rights defenders stated the government fabricated the charges to halt the spread of an Islamic political opposition in the country. In September the government granted the early release of 18 individuals convicted of minor crimes related to a 2015 police operation in Nardaran.
On July 3, the Masalli District Court sentenced theologian Sardar Babayev to three years in prison for performing Namaz (ritual prayers) after having studied Islam outside the country. He was the only individual ever prosecuted under this law. Following Babayev’s arrest, parliament passed legislation allowing the CMB, the same body that had originally appointed him as imam in Masalli, to waive selectively the same legal requirements for other individuals. According to NGOs Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) and Forum 18, Babayev’s lawyer was unable to attend the first hearing on February 22 due to the short notice, and while in pre-trial detention from February to July prison authorities reportedly denied Babayev access to the Quran and to a prayer mat.
On July 25, the Baku Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s conviction of Inqilab Ehadli for treason (reportedly wanting to overthrow the constitutional order). On May 11, 2016, the Baku Grave Crimes Court had sentenced him to five years in prison. Lawyers stated the real reason for his conviction was his support of the politically active Muslim Unity Movement.
According to the media reports, police in the town of Quba raided a religious meeting at the home of local resident Tehran Amiraslanov on March 4 and detained 22 participants on charges of holding a religious meeting without state permission. Police seized 54 religious books and 16 audio tapes and sent them to the SCWRA for analysis. At least 21 of the accused reportedly were found guilty and each was fined 1,500 AZN ($880) at hearings on March 5.
On April 9, according to NGO reports, police raided meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Qaradag district of Baku, detaining 39 individuals, including 10 children. Police seized a large quantity of religious literature during the raids. At year’s end, the investigation of the case continued. Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported police raided and interfered with religious services, seized religious literature, physically attacked individuals, and detained them for hours in three incidents in Barda and Lokbatan. Between October 2016 and July 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives’ reported 10 cases of police interference with their public proselytizing.
Media reported authorities removed an imam in the Goychay district, Ruslan Mammadov, from his position as the CMB-approved imam, charging him with illegal activity for setting up a mosque in a village near his home. Media also reported the SCWRA issued a warning to Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu for holding an “illegal” meeting in Baku during Ramadan for the Juma Mosque religious community from which authorities officially removed him in 2004.
Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered nontraditional by the government reported authorities continued to impede their functioning and subject them to fines. Some Protestant leaders reported that their continued inability to obtain legal registration prevented them from openly conducting worship services or advertising their locations to bring in new members. Leaders of unregistered home-based churches continued to report they kept their activities discreet after past unsuccessful registration attempts brought them unwanted attention from authorities.
Numerous religious communities continued to report experiencing problems with the government’s registration application process, leaving them unable to register.
Communities applying for registration for the first time stated the government continued to return applications because of what it said were technical or administrative problems with the information provided. In 2009, the government amended the law governing religious communities to require all registered groups to resubmit registration applications. The SCWRA did not reregister some groups, including several minority Muslim groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some evangelical Christians, despite their submission of their applications before the January 2010 deadline, and continued to require the groups to dissolve legally before accepting new applications for registration.
Some religious community leaders also reported the SCWRA continued its policy of applying pre-2009 registration status for such communities only to the physical structures mentioned in their pre-2009 registration forms. The SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in additional facilities or new locations acquired since 2009 were not covered under their pre-2009 registration status.
The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate while their new registration applications remained pending. Although the SCWRA stated those communities were able to operate under their previous registration, some of the religious communities unable to reregister reported police continued to reject the SCWRA letters as inadequate and stated only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.
According to the SCWRA, the number of registered communities during the year reached 793, of which 28 were non-Muslim – 17 Christian, eight Jewish, two Bahai, and one ISKON. The SCWRA also reported 2250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered at the end of the year. The SCWRA stated it had registered ten religious education schools during the year.
The SCWRA said in a press release it terminated the activities of seven religious communities for noncompliance with the law and reported registering 34 religious communities.
Observers reported the government and the majority of school administrators throughout the country continued to permit girls to wear the hijab in primary and secondary schools despite directives in 2007 and 2009 that mandated school uniforms and implied girls should not wear the hijab.
According to religious experts, the government continued to exercise control over the activities of Muslim groups, including through regulating the content of religious television broadcasts and the sale of religious literature. The government also reportedly continued confiscations of unapproved books.
According to NGO reports, on May 5, police in the southern town of Astara, on the border with Iran, seized 365 banned religious books and 13 CDs from five homes. The police investigation reportedly continued at year’s end.
Although some religious groups reported the process for obtaining permission to import religious literature remained burdensome, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated their previous problems with the importation of religious materials and literature had ended following meetings on the subject with the SCWRA.
On May 31, the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld a fine of 1,500 AZN ($880) imposed on Sunni Muslim Shahin Ahmadov for holding an “illegal” religious meeting. Police had detained him for reading aloud from the works of theologian Said Nursi to three friends while picnicking on April 18.
On June 21, the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld a fine of 1,500 AZN ($880) given to Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov for an illegal religious gathering after police raided a 2016 meeting with fellow church members in the village of Aliabad in the northern Zakatala district. Media reported police also fined Mehman Agamammadov for his participation in the same gathering, but he was unable to join Shabanov’s appeal, having never received a written decision from the court, despite repeated attempts to obtain it. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in this case, such as the court’s failure to provide a translator and asking Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.
In early January a higher court rejected the appeal by three Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Goranboy district of fines imposed on them for discussing their faith with others and offering to give them religious literature.
Local media reported authorities fined Kifayat Maharramova, a bookseller in Ganja, 2,000 AZN ($1,200) in early May for selling religious books and discs without the necessary state permission. Two booksellers in Baku, Shahmerdan Imamaliyev and Islam Mammadov, lost their appeals in January to overturn similar fines imposed in 2016.
In March a court in Baku acquitted the owners of a store selling Christian books after they showed evidence to the court they had previously applied for the needed license to sell religious items, and the books being sold had received state approval or were sample copies to be submitted for such approval. Following the court decision in their favor, they received the necessary license from authorities with the assistance of the SCWRA.
On February 8, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko on charges of illegal distribution of religious literature. The court found the brochure in question had been approved for import and was not harmful to society. On August 4, the Nasimi District Court awarded them compensation for “material and moral damage” incurred during their 11-month imprisonment.
Local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques under the pretext of repairing or renovating them; they said the government’s real motivation was countering perceived religious extremism. Once closed, they said, the mosques remained closed. For example, after the Ashurbey Mosque in the Old City of Baku became popular with Salafis as a place of worship, authorities announced it needed renovation and closed it in July 2016. It remained closed at year’s end.
On July 1, local authorities demolished the Haji Javad mosque in Baku. According to media reports, on April 12, a group of Muslims surrounded the mosque to prevent its demolition to construct a new road. Authorities had suspended the demolition while they studied the issue and held consultations on relocating the mosque to a nearby location. Media reported the government had not authorized the demolition, and officials fired the head of the city district. The government ordered the construction of a new Haji Javad Mosque that was near completion at the end of the year.
Domestic human rights NGOs and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government continued not to offer any form of alternative service to conscientious objectors. Government officials continued to state the basis for their stance was the continuing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On March 17, in conjunction with the declaration of 2017 as a year of Islamic solidarity, the president announced the allocation of three million AZN ($1,750,000) to the CMB for educational activities throughout the country, to be conducted in coordination with state officials and religious figures.
On June 20, President Aliyev signed a decree allocating one million AZN ($585,000) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, and 250,000 AZN ($147,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews. The decree also allocated 100,000 AZN ($58,500) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku.
During the first six months of the year, the SCWRA held 13 domestic conferences in varying locations on Islamic solidarity, modern challenges, and “religious enlightenment,” 12 roundtables on activities of religious communities in promoting Islamic solidarity, and nine training sessions on the fight against “religious radicalism.”
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Some religious groups and NGOs reported continued restrictions on religious activities by the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, but information on specific abuses remained unavailable.
On September 8, Grand Mufti Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, Armenian Supreme Patriarch Karekin II, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I met in Moscow to discuss a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict . The three religious leaders called on the authorities in the region to protect churches and mosques and to respect and preserve religious monuments. They also urged political authorities not to allow the conflict to turn into a religious conflict.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local religious experts 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. Social media comments reflected such mistrust; some users maligned Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to serve in the army while the country remained at war.
According to a media report in March, there was limited public debate on social media over the proper place of religion in public life after a draft of an alleged “creationist” textbook was posted online for public comment. Secular leaning academics spoke out against the draft textbooks, and in response, the Ministry of Education modified the offending passages.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy officers met with senior SCWRA officials and with CMB and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and urged the government to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and the government’s treatment of the religious communities continuing to face difficulties in fulfilling registration requirements, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptist communities, and other religious minorities. They also discussed fines and detentions of religious practitioners.
The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with leaders of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish groups and civil society representatives for continuing discussions on religious freedom and obstacles to registration.
The Ambassador and embassy spokespersons made several public statements encouraging the government and individuals to live up to country’s history of religious tolerance. In June the Ambassador again hosted an iftar for government officials, Muslim and non-Muslim religious leaders, and NGO representatives at which he emphasized the need for promoting mutual tolerance and respect among the country’s religious communities.
The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” In July the government passed a unified “family law” codifying personal status to include inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. On May 21, Sheikh Isa Qassim, identified by media as the leading Shia cleric in the country, received a one-year suspended sentence in absentia (Qassim was living under de facto house arrest) for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. On May 23, security forces conducted an operation to remove pro-Qassim protestors who had blocked roads surrounding Qassim’s residence since June 2016, which resulted in five deaths, 286 arrests, and 31 injured police officers. Police continued to restrict entry into Qassim’s predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz through year’s end. On December 4, the government permitted Qassim to leave his home, for the first time since June 2016, to receive medical treatment for several days at a private hospital. On April 3, the country’s highest appeals court, the Court of Cassation, overturned the Appeals Court’s nine-year prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of the Shia-aligned opposition political society Wifaq, and restored his original four-year sentence. On November 12, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJIA) filed new espionage charges against Salman for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. In February the Court of Cassation rejected Wifaq’s appeal to halt the groups’ dissolution and liquidation of its assets and upheld a September 2016 appeals court denial of Wifaq’s appeal. International human rights organizations again published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives said there was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Public officials continued to state some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country with minimal interference from the government. In September the king launched the Bahrain Declaration to call on all persons of faith to “disown practices such as the encouragement of extremism and radicalization, suicide bombing, promotion of sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children.” According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and it encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.
According to local press reports, during the year some militant groups used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and firearms to attack police and claimed responsibility using Shia religious terminology to justify their attacks. Four police officers were killed in these assaults. In response, the government launched investigations into the attacks, prosecuted members of Shia groups, and blamed Iran for materially supporting these militant groups. Representatives of the Shia community reported the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were exacerbated by continued discrimination against Shia in the private as well as the public sectors and added to tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities. Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including allegations prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior,” and others using derogatory terminology to describe Sunnis. According to non-Muslim religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to urge them to end discrimination against Shia in employment and education; to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and to allow prisoners to practice their religions. In August the Secretary of State called on the government to “stop discriminating against the Shia communities.” U.S. officials also continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy officers met regularly with religious leaders of all faiths and representatives of NGOs to discuss religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.4 million (July 2017 estimate). Of the total population, citizens number 677,000, according to the local government’s 2017, most recently available estimate. According to U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 70 percent of the total population; Christians 14.5 percent; Hindus 9.8 percent; Buddhists 2.5 percent; and Jews 0.6 percent. Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Bahais, and Jews together constitute the remaining 1 percent.
The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims; most estimates state Shia constitute a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population. According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36 Jewish citizens, from six families, in the country.
Most of the foreign residents, who, according to the government, make up approximately 55 percent of the total population, are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arab countries. Local government estimates report approximately 51 percent of foreign residents are Muslim, 17 percent Christians (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India), fewer than 1 percent Jewish ,and 31 percent followers of other religions (Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, and Sikhs).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, the freedom to perform religious rites, and the freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as these do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. Shia and Sunni citizens have equal rights by law. According to the constitution, all people are equal without discrimination on the grounds of gender, origin, language, or faith. The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public sector on grounds of religion or faith. The law also stipulates victims of dismissal or discrimination in the work place on the basis of religion are entitled to legal recourse, but the government had not defined or identified an effective means of recourse by year’s end.
The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” do not prejudice the unity of the people, or arouse discord or sectarianism.
The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment for no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”
Muslim groups must register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJIA) to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf, while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf. The waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Muslim congregations and groups must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) to operate. In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI), depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups, but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars (BD) ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.
According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups are registered with the MOLSD: the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral and Awali Anglican Church, Full Gospel Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Church Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, and the Anglican and Episcopal Church in Bahrain. Additionally, three non-Muslim, nonregistered groups include Bahai, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.
The penal code calls for punishment of not more than one year’s imprisonment or a fine of no more than BD100 ($265) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.
The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, attending conferences abroad without authorization, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.
The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf. The respective endowment boards, Sunni and Jaafari, supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for religious sites. The endowment boards’ operations are largely funded by monetary donations or property donated to the boards by citizens. In addition, the respective Sunni and Shia endowment boards are funded by the state as well as tithes, income from property rentals, and other private sources. The income is used to fund the maintenance of religious sites. The boards also pay for salaries, supplies, and building expenses for the religious sites. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses for preachers and other religious figures. Board members’ salaries are funded by the MOJIA.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general religious activities taking place within the country, and reviews the parliament’s draft legislation as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The council comprised a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 prominent religious scholars, eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges. The king appoints council members for a four-year term. Independent from other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships for advanced Islamic studies for low income students. All legislation proposed by the parliament is reviewed by the SCIA to ensure the draft law’s compliance with sharia, as applicable. The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers. The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs aired or broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs. The council also has a peacebuilding role and organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.
The king has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the prime minister. By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from appropriate national and municipal authorities. The law permits non-Muslim houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises. Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Islamic religious sites, either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Waqf under the MOJIA for Islamic sites, the Survey and Restoration Directorate, and the Survey Department. The construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, is based on a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area.
The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the educational system. The government funds public schools for grades 1-12; Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim students, and are optional for non-Muslims. Many students attend private schools, which must be registered with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and -operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims, in addition to the required Islamic religious education for Muslim students, must receive permission from the Ministry of Education (MOE). Outside of school hours, both Muslim and non-Muslim students engage in religious studies as their parents decide.
The MOE reports that no particular school of jurisprudence forms the basis of the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum. According to the MOE, it utilizes a team of experts to routinely review and develop the Islamic studies public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence. There are two public schools that provide more in-depth religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula is consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools. The Jaafari Institute provides religious instruction in Shia Islam. The Religious Institute provides education in Sunni Islam.
The University of Bahrain offers degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students. There are five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis. There are several dozen hawzas (Shia seminaries), some registered and some not registered. According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to six of the registered hawzas; other hawzas choose to be privately funded. Foreign donors are not permitted to contribute to privately funded hawzas. Non-Muslim groups are also permitted to offer religious instruction to their adherents.
According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code. With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. It also guarantees the duties and status of women according to sharia. In July the government passed a unified family law, which codifies personal status law for both the Sunni interpretation and Jaafari interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Prior to July there was no personal status law for Shia. Previously, Shia would use a court system in which personal status matters are decided by judges who used their own discretion to interpret Islamic tradition. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies, and civil courts make decisions for them on matters such as divorce and child custody.
The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates, however, record a child’s religion, but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.
The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.
The law prohibits individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.
By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by organizations, including religious ones. Organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA to do so.
In May the parliament approved an amendment to a 2014 law on correctional facilities that would guarantee inmates the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside of prison. Parliament also approved a proposal to provide religious lectures and sermons for prisoners, who previously relied on books, brochures and leaflets for spiritual guidance.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way ” the prescriptions of sharia.
Summary paragraph: The government continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics, community members, and opposition politicians associated with the Shia community. On May 21, Sheikh Isa Qassim, identified by the media as the leading Shia cleric in the country (who had been confined under de facto house arrest), and two of his employees received a one-year suspended sentence in absentia for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. Since June 2016, the police have restricted access to Qassim’s home village following a sit-in around his house by his supporters who protested the revocation of his citizenship. On May 23, security forces conducted an operation to remove the protestors who had been blocking roads surrounding Qassim’s residence, located in the predominately Shia neighborhood of Diraz. The operation resulted in 286 arrests, five deaths, and 31 injured police officers. On December 4, the government permitted Qassim to leave his home for the first time since June 2016, in order to receive medical treatment for several days at a private hospital. On April 3, the Court of Cassation overturned the Appeals Court’s nine-year prison sentence given to Ali Salman, secretary general of the Shia-aligned opposition political society Wifaq, and restored his four-year sentence. On November 12, the Bahrain News Agency reported new criminal charges were being filed against Salman and two other individuals for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. In February the Court of Cassation upheld a September 2016 appeals court denial of Wifaq’s appeal and upheld the lower court’s order to shut down Wifaq and liquidate its assets. International human rights organizations published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and mistreatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives complained about what they said was discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Government officials continued to state some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism and engaged in treasonous behavior. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with their religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On May 21, the High Criminal Court sentenced Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who had been confined under a de facto house arrest, to a one-year suspended sentence in absentia on charges of money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. Two of Qassim’s employees, Hussain Al Qassab and Mirza Al Durazi, also received suspended sentences for the same crimes. The court fined the three individuals BD 100,000 ($265,000) each and reportedly confiscated more than BD 3 million ($7.96 million) from Qassim’s bank account and reported the funds would be delivered to local charities. In October Qassab withdrew his appeal of the suspended sentence and fine. Qassim’s supporters reported his office had collected the money and spent the funds in accordance with Shia customs and obligations, known as khums, and said the government had targeted Qassim due to his prominent status in the Shia community. On December 4, the government permitted Qassim to leave his home for the first time since June 2016, in order to receive medical treatment for several days at a private hospital.
Supporters of Qassim continued a sit-in demonstration until May 23 around his house in the village of Diraz which began after the government revoked Qassim’s citizenship in June 2016. In response, the government established checkpoints to control access to Diraz. Local residents complained of long lines and difficulties accessing their community. Authorities prevented nonresidents, including Shia clerics, from entering to attend or lead prayers at mosques in Diraz.
On May 23, the MOI conducted a security operation targeting alleged members of a terrorist cell involved in the sit-in around Qassim’s residence. The MOI stated its actions were to “apprehend terrorists operating in the area and clear illegal roadblocks and obstructions.” Protesters and human rights groups, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), stated police opened fire with shotgun pellets and teargas on peaceful demonstrators. Police stated protesters attacked them with iron rods, axes, knives, rocks, firebombs, and grenades. According to local press, police arrested 286 persons, reportedly including fugitives who had escaped from Jaw Prison in January. The media reported five civilians were killed and 31 police officers injured in clashes with protesters during the operation. While police stated use of force was justified, opposition groups and activists said the killings were politically motivated and were evidence of excessive use of force. Local and international human rights groups criticized the government’s actions. BCHR expressed concern over the “total impunity” of security forces, while Amnesty International called for an independent investigation into police use of “excessive force” against the protesters.
On November 8, the MOI authorities entered and searched the Islamic Awareness Society headquarters in Diraz, which the government had closed in 2016. The authorities said they were responding to a suspicious package near the building. The society was registered as a charity with the MOLSD, but it was reportedly headed by Qassim, and its members were largely Shia clerics and religious workers such as teachers and chanters. Shia activists said the government had likely used the report of a suspicious package as an excuse to raid the society’s headquarters.
In October residents of Diraz reported the MOI prohibited guest speakers from entering the village to teach at prayer halls during Ashura celebrations. International NGOs reported the police had summoned more than 70 individuals, including 30 clerics, prior to and during the Ashura celebrations. Police held many individuals overnight; some were detained and released soon after.
Courts sentenced several Shia clerics to prison terms for participating in the demonstrations in support of Qassim. In October a court sentenced Hamza Al Deiri, scholar and former Member of Parliament (MP) of Wifaq, to one year in prison for taking part in the sit-in outside of Qassim’s residence. Authorities released seven other Shia clerics in August after they completed a one-year prison term following a demonstration in support of Qassim. Between August 3-9, authorities released an additional six Shia clerics – Sheikh Mounir Al-Maatouk, Sayed Yassine Al-Mosawi, Sheikh Imad Al-Shagla, Sheikh Aziz Al-Khadran, Sheikh Ali Naji, and Sayed Ali Ahmad – one year after their arrest over the Diraz protest that began in June 2016.
On April 3, the Court of Cassation overturned the Appeals Court’s nine-year prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of the Shia opposition political society Wifaq, restored his four-year sentence, and cleared him of the charge of calling for regime change. On November 12, the Bahrain News Agency reported authorities filed new criminal charges against Salman and two other individuals, Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. Salman’s two codefendants were abroad and would be tried in absentia. Salman appeared in the High Criminal Court on November 29 and December 28; however, no verdict had been announced in this case at year’s end.
Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with the political opposition and given sentences ranging from 15-years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.
Authorities arrested Shia scholar Sheikh Abdul Zahra Al Karbabadi along with his wife and sister on April 28. No update on their cases was available at year’s end.
Former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa remained in prison while his trial on charges of helping to finance a terrorist bomb attack continued. Authorities had arrested Isa in August 2015, following a July 2015 bombing in Sitra that killed two police officers. Isa denied involvement in the bombing, saying he had not given money to terrorists, but had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of his neighborhood. The Court of Appeals postponed Isa’s case until November 7, but no further information was reported publicly.
The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. On April 11, the High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld a six-month jail sentence for a Shia religious chanter, Mahdi Sahwan, who had participated in what the government called “an illegal gathering” outside of Qassim’s residence. On April 12, authorities summoned four Shia clerics for questioning after the clerics commemorated the death of an Iraqi clergyman who was executed by the Iraqi government in the 1980s. On May 25, the government arrested Shia cleric Isa Al Moamen for a sermon he delivered in August 2016. He was released after serving a three-month prison sentence. On June 28, authorities charged Sheikh Hasanain Al-Mhanna with “inciting hatred against the regime and inciting contempt against a sect” based on the background of a sermon he delivered. No additional details were reported on his case.
Authorities generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports authorities sometimes denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. International NGOs reported Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment by prison guards because of their religion, which at times led to coerced confessions. Some Shia prisoners at Jaw Prison and at the pretrial Dry Dock facility reported they were not allowed to practice their faith freely. Government officials stated the MOI, which supervised detention facilities, only prohibited practices when they violated prison safety rules, such as waving religious banners or organizing large-scale gatherings for religious ceremonies. In November the National Institute for Human Rights, (NIHR), a quasi-official government human rights organization, stated inmates had the right to perform their religious rites as long as it did not impact the security of the prison or detention center. Inmates at Jaw Prison staged several hunger strikes throughout the year to protest detention conditions that included lack of religious freedom.
The NIHR reported 15 cases of complaints by Muslim inmates and five Christian inmates at Jaw Prison saying prison guards prevented them from performing prayers in a designated prayer area for all faiths.
On April 12, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 13 Shia leaders sentenced to life in prison in 2011, started a hunger strike which lasted 24 days to protest what he said was degrading treatment and poor conditions in Jaw Prison. On September 9, the press reported inmates at Jaw Prison staged a hunger strike to protest prison conditions and lack of religious freedom, in particular the right to pray. Shia activists reported inmates from at least four cellblocks joined the strike and the prison administration isolated the group and cut off outside communication. Most prisoners reportedly ended the hunger strike on September 24, after prison officials agreed to improve conditions and allow Shia inmates greater ability to worship.
At year’s end, no additional information was reported by the local press on implementation of the amendment allowing inmates to attend burials and receive condolences outside of prison. In response to the parliament proposal to provide religious lectures and sermons for prisoners, the government reported the law already permitted inmates to receive special programs for seminars and educational lectures. The government also stated inmates possess the right to maintain their own library containing a variety of religious books and publications.
The government during the year reported 452 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers, while the number of licensed Shia places of worship remained at 608 mosques and 618 ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries). In 2016, the government reported there were 440 licensed Sunni mosques and 80 Sunni community centers, while the number of licensed Shia places of worship had been 609 mosques and 618 ma’atams. It reported it granted nine permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and 17 permits to build Shia mosques and ma’atams. According to local press reports, the predominantly Shia neighborhoods in the Northern Governorate have 344 Shia mosques, more than half of the country’s total, and 211 ma’atams, nearly one-third of the country’s registered ma’atams. Observers reported that, in new housing developments, there continued to be a disproportionately large number of Sunni mosques, which they said showed continued government favoritism toward Sunni Muslims. The government stated that determining whether the mosque was Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.
The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it had created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. Preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. The MOJIA also continued to announce how much money an adult should give on a voluntary basis to the poor on religious feast days. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and had them sign pledges to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.
The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. Local press estimated the largest procession attracted 150,000-200,000 attendees in downtown Manama. As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.
The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. The MOI continued to provide security for large events held by religious communities, including non-Muslim ones. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.
Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.
In 2009, the government adopted a codified family law for Sunnis; however, following criticism from Shia religious leaders, the legislature did not pass a corresponding Shia personal status law at that time. Prior to passing the codified family law in July, the king appointed a sharia committee comprised of Sunni and Shia religious scholars to review the draft law for compliance with sharia provisions for both the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
In 2016, the king announced he would permit a Coptic Orthodox church to be built in Manama; there were no updates available at year’s end.
The government again reported no significant reconstruction work had been done on the three remaining Shia mosques from the 30 it had damaged or destroyed in 2011. The government pledged to do the reconstruction in compliance with the recommendations of an independent fact-finding commission established by the king in 2011. The government reported that one mosque in Salmabad was reconstructed by local residents without a permit on an “illegal” site, despite the government’s offer for an alternative site in the same neighborhood. According to the government, the second remaining mosque, in Hawrat Sanad, was under evaluation because nine other Shia mosques already existed within close proximity. The government also stated the third mosque, in Madinat Zayed, was under review pending determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. Some Shia stated they remained dissatisfied with three of the 27 reconstructed mosques because they had been rebuilt in different locations. Shia leaders stated the mosque grounds should have been preserved as they were. The government reported many of the mosques were previously built using primitive materials, without licenses, or in areas not in compliance with zoning regulations.
In June the local press reported officials from the Jaafari Waqf Directorate and local municipal authorities blamed each other for the lack of attention to maintaining, remodeling, or cleaning existing Shia mosques and ma’atams in the Northern Governorate.
NGOs reported the government showed disparate treatment of Shia versus Sunni individuals and stated this different treatment fueled perceptions among the Shia community of a justice system stacked against them. For example, several times during the year the government reported it had investigated a number of officials from the mostly-Sunni police and military services for breaking the law or violating official procedures, but the government did not name any of the individuals, including those who had been convicted of crimes, were in jail, or had been removed from their positions. On the other hand, the Public Prosecution Office, the MOI, and the state-run Bahrain News Agency sometimes published names and pictures of Shia who were convicted of crimes, although not explicitly stating their religious affiliation, and at times published their names before the persons were indicted.
The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from large Sunni mosques, but not sermons from Shia mosques.
According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni applicants over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.
According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military. They reported Sunnis received preference for employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia leaders, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. They said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally; however, many parents with the financial means preferred to send their children to private schools. The government repeated its statements affirming a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services. The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods. The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists said that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them. The king continued to appoint Shia citizens to senior leadership positions, including cabinet positions and seats on the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament appointed by the king.
Human rights activists reported discrimination against Shia in education continued. Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students’ political views and family background. The government said their scholarships remained competitive, but some applicants not selected said their being passed over was due to discrimination. Rights activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields. The government reported that the flagship Crown Prince Scholarship Program continued to have representation from members of both Shia and Sunni groups, but it did not provide statistics of such a breakdown. There were continued reports of the MOE refusing to recognize the foreign degrees of some students. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.
The 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while 20 of its members were Sunni. Five of the 23 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.
In February the Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of Wifaq to halt the group’s dissolution and liquidation of its assets, upholding a September 2016 appeals court denial of Wifaq’s appeal and a lower court’s order to shut down the organization.
Throughout the year government officials made statements accusing Shia individuals or segments of the Shia community of specific crimes, alleging they were supporters of terrorism, linking individuals with what they said were Iranian-backed militants’ efforts to subvert the government, or threatening community members and institutions with future legal action.
NGOs reported the government closely monitored the collection of funds by religious organizations, including charity donations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.
In September under the king’s patronage, an interfaith NGO, This is Bahrain, launched the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration in Los Angeles in cosponsorship with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Bahrain Declaration calls on all “people of faith” to “disown practices such as the sowing of terror, the encouragement of extremism and radicalization, suicide bombing, promotion of sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children.” Local and international press reported that Arab diplomats, other foreign representatives, and 300 interfaith leaders from around the world attended the event.
News editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. For example, in October the king wrote an editorial in international media that was reprinted in local press, highlighting what he said was the country’s tradition of churches, synagogues, a Sikh temple, and a 200-year old Hindu temple being built in close proximity to mosques. He wrote, “religious freedom should not be viewed as a problem but rather a very real solution to many of our world’s biggest challenges and especially terrorism, which knows no religion and threatens all peace-loving people.” Local press featured photos of the crown prince visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, local press reported individuals allegedly associated with militant groups committed attacks on police, and some groups claiming responsibility used Shia religious terminology to justify their attacks. In response, the government launched investigations, prosecuted members of violent groups, and said Iran was providing material support to these groups. The government reported four police officers were killed, dozens sustained minor injuries, and 13 sustained life-threatening or serious injuries during the year. Perpetrators of these attacks often filmed themselves attacking police and posted such videos on social media. They sometimes wore religious garb such as burial shrouds.
The government reported IED attacks killed two police officers during the year, including a June 18 blast that killed an officer near the home of prominent cleric Isa Qassim, and an October 27 blast targeting a police bus that killed one officer and injured eight others.
On December 31, local press reported authorities tried a group of 60 individuals involved with a local militant group, Al Ashtar Brigades, for their reported role in the January 29 killing of an off-duty police officer and the January 1 Jaw Prison break, in which assailants freed 10 Shia inmates and killed a guard.
On October 1, according to press reports, Shia militant group Wa’ad Allah (God’s Promise Brigades), believed by the government to be associated with Al-Ashtar Brigades, detonated an IED targeting an MOI checkpoint in Daih during Ashura processions. Five police officers were injured.
Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so, but those who did remained unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.
NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported regional Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have an effect domestically. Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Construction on a cathedral to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, on land donated by the king, was scheduled to begin in early 2018. Christian community leaders stated that they had made some progress in finding a location for a new non-Muslim cemetery. There were cremation facilities for the Hindu community.
Several Hindu temples and Sikh temples operated throughout the country. The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple is reportedly over 200-years old and was often visited by high-level government officials, including the crown prince. The country was also home to a Jewish synagogue and more than a dozen Christian churches. There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.
Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.
According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Local news reports during the year featured activities of minority religious communities, including announcements of changes in leadership, Muslim bands performing at Christmas festivities, and sports events organized by the Sikh community.
Some social media accounts repeated allegations that prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or had engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior.” Comments continued to refer to the Shia political opposition as “Iranian subordinates” and “coup plotters.” Other social media posts accused prominent Sunnis of being “ISIL affiliates,” “dogs,” and “takfiri” (Muslims who kill other Muslims who do not follow the same belief structure).
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, other embassy officers, and Department of State representatives met with government officials to urge them to respect freedom of expression for all, including clerics; ensure members of the Shia community had equal access to employment and services; pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and allow prisoners to practice their religions. In August the Secretary of State called on the government to “stop discriminating against the Shia communities.” U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet regularly with religious leaders of all faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss their freedom of religion, the welfare of detainees, and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practices.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. The government provided guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and to monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. In November police arrested two suspects with ties to an al-Qa’ida inspired group in connection with the 2015 killing of a U.S.-born blogger critical of religious extremism. According to the press, one of the suspects confessed to involvement in the killing of four other secular activists. Despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often working together with local religious leaders, used extrajudicial fatwas to punish women and other groups for perceived “moral transgressions.” Religious minority communities such as Hindus and Christians, which are also sometimes ethnic minorities, reported the government failed to effectively prevent forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. According to local organizations and media reports, the Ministry of Education (MOE) made significant changes to traditionally secular Bengali language textbooks, such as removing non-Muslim authors’ content and adding Islamic content to nonreligious subject matter. The government continued to provide law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered to be possible targets for violence.
There were attacks on religious minorities, particularly Buddhists and Hindus, during the year. In June hundreds of Bengali Muslim villagers in the southeastern part of the country set fire to 300 houses belonging to members of the Chakma, a mostly Buddhist minority. A 70-year-old woman died during the attacks. The arson followed the killing of a local Muslim resident. In November a mob, angered by a Facebook post reportedly demeaning Islam, burned and vandalized approximately 30 houses belonging to Hindus in the northern district of Rangpur.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives continued to speak out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and to foster a climate of tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and to explore the link between religion and violent extremism. The embassy provided humanitarian assistance to ethnic Rohingya, who are nearly all Muslim, fleeing Burma. The embassy also organized an exchange program on religious education in the U.S. The overarching objective of the program was to explore the role of religion and religious freedom in a multicultural society.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 157.8 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2013 census, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Bahais, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Many of these communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents. Many ethnic minorities practice minority religions and are concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts. For example, the Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barisal, Gournadi, Baniarchar, Monipuripara, Christianpara, Gazipur, and Khulna.
The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 33,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma are officially registered in the country and are residing in the two official refugee camps within Cox’s Bazar district. The government and UNHCR estimate another 900,000 to 1,000,000 Rohingya from Burma are in Cox’s Bazar district, including an estimated 500 Hindu Rohingya. Approximately 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following the start of violence in Burma’s Rakhine State in August.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “the state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It also provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution stipulates no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.
Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While not a stated blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code as well as Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act to charge offenders.
The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds.
Individual houses of worship are not required to register. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB director general has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of the NGO. NGOs also are subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence Agency, the Special Branch of the police, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.
The registration requirement and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include submission of certification that the name being registered is not taken; provision of the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the national intelligence agency; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; a work plan; a copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative. Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.
Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption has separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman. Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Women may not inherit property under Hindu law. Buddhists are subject to Hindu law. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups is allowed and occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of a marriage for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.
Under the Muslim family ordinance, a widow receives one eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.
Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.
Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may not be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.
Religious studies are compulsory and part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.
The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a religion of their choice before execution.
The 2001 Vested Property (Return) Act allows the government to confiscate property of anyone whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. Authorities often used it to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, when they fled the country, particularly after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Police arrested two suspects with ties to an al-Qa’ida-inspired group in connection with the 2015 killing of a U.S.-born blogger critical of religious extremism. According to the press, one of the suspects confessed to involvement in the killing of four other secular activists. Despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often working together with local religious leaders, used extrajudicial fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions.” Religious minority communities such as Hindus and Christians, who also are sometimes ethnic minorities, reported the government failed to effectively prevent forced evictions and land seizures. In these instances, the minorities said law enforcement was sometimes slow to respond. The MOE made significant changes to Bengali language textbooks, which were traditionally secular, such as removing non-Muslim authors’ content and adding Islamic content to nonreligious subject matter. Supreme Court authorities moved a sculpture depicting a blindfolded woman holding a scale from the court’s entrance to a less prominent space. Sources said the court took this action in response to statements that the “idol” stood against Islamic values. The government continued to provide law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered to be possible targets for violence.
The investigation into the 2016 killings of six secular bloggers, online activists, writers, and publishers remained inconclusive, according to press reports. Police had not charged any individuals by year’s end.
Outlawed militant group Ansar Al Islam, which according to press reports is likely loosely affiliated with al Qa’ida-inspired Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), claimed responsibility for killing nine individuals for “offending Islam” from February 2013 to April 2016. In April the High Court confirmed the death penalty for two individuals found involved in the nine deaths. Police charged suspects in two other killings, leaving six open investigations pending. According to a Daily Prothom Alo newspaper report published on September 9, police detained only seven of the 43 suspects in those six pending cases.
On November 6, police announced they had detained Abu Siddiq Sohel, whom they said had admitted to involvement in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy, a critic of religious extremism. On November 23, police said they had arrested another individual, Arafat Rahman, also wanted in connection with Roy’s killing. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife home from a Dhaka book fair. The assailants also seriously injured Roy’s widow in the attack. The press reported that police suspected ABT of involvement in Roy’s killing, and a police official identified Rahman as a member. The press also reported Rahman had confessed to involvement in the killing of four other secular activists.
In line with its stated intent to facilitate an impartial inquiry into the November 2016 killing of three Santal Christians in law enforcement engagements and arson attacks, the government withdrew the Superintendent of Police of Gabandha District as well as the entire police force from the Govidaganj Sub-District in February to comply with a High Court order. On October 7, personnel from the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) detained Shah Alam, a Union Council member and one of the 33 accused in the case. Several others detained earlier were released on bail. According to media reports, at year’s end the PBI had not filed charges against a parliamentarian from the ruling party and a local civil servant reportedly involved in the incident.
Human rights organizations reported that, despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often together with local religious leaders, used fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions,” such as adultery and other illicit sexual relations. From January to December, the human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) documented 10 incidents of punishments under fatwas, including societal shunning, whipping, and forced interim marriages between individuals of different religions. In February the High Court ordered a local government entity to report on action it had taken against the perpetrators of the extrajudicial punishment meted out to a man and a woman in December 2016 in Komolganj Upazila of Maulvibazar District for reported moral transgressions. At year’s end, no new developments were reported.
The government did not approve registrations for a number of religiously affiliated organizations. The government disallowed some religiously affiliated organizations to engage in relief operations for the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, such as Muslim Aid.
Hindus, Christians, and members of other religious minority communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, reported several property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, remained unresolved. According to religious minority associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders sometimes enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups, including Odhikar, attributed the lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout rather than government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.
Religious minorities continued to state minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes of their faith because of a lack of minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside of school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.
According to local organizations and media reports, the MOE made changes to Bengali language textbooks, including removing poems and stories penned by non-Muslim writers and replacing pictures of secular items in alphabet references, such as ol (a type of yam), with orna (hijab). The textbook revisions also introduced religious content in educational disciplines outside of religious studies. Local media reported Hefazat-e-Islam’s political advocacy influenced the government’s decision to make the changes to the school books. The media report also stated Hefazat-e-Islam was seeking more significant changes to the education system in coming years. Rasheda K. Choudhury, a human rights activist and educator, said “the government is trying to appease Islamists to get their votes”
In an April 11 meeting with approximately 350 Islamic clerics led by Hefazat-e-Islam Chief Allama Ahmad Shafi, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the government’s recognition of degrees granted by thousands of unregistered Qawmi madrassahs. The government issued a notification permitting master’s degree equivalent status to the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest degree offered to graduates by these exclusively religious educational institutes, thus making graduates eligible for government jobs. Some news reports suggested the government recognized the Qawmi madrassah system to win support in advance of the general election due to be held by January 2019.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 6.59 billion taka ($80.4 million) for the 2017-18 fiscal year, including 3.33 billion taka ($40.6 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 3.27 billion taka ($39.9 million), which was 98.10 per cent of the total development fund. The Hindu Welfare Trust received 54.8 million taka ($668,000) or 1.64 percent and The Buddhist Welfare Trust received 2.6 million taka ($31,700) or 0.26 percent of the total development allocation. The government did not release any of the two billion taka ($24.4 million) allocation the finance minister announced in his budget speech for the development of Hindu temples throughout the country. While The Christian Welfare Trust did not receive any development funding from the 2017-18 budget, it received 2.1 million taka ($25,600) to run its office.
On October 29, law enforcement detained six persons for vandalizing and looting a Hindu Durga temple in Shivalaya Upazila (sub-district) of Manikganj District. According to an October 31 Daily Ittefaq newspaper report, the temple committee chair accused a local Awami League leader and his nephew of inciting their constituency to vandalize the temple with the intention of seizing the land where the temple is situated.
On May 26, Supreme Court authorities removed a sculpture at the Supreme Court’s entrance depicting a blindfolded woman with scales in one hand and a sword in the other, dubbed “lady justice.” The court’s decision apparently came in response to demands from some Muslim clerics who stated the “idol” contradicted Islamic values and heritage and would interfere with Eid prayers. Supreme Court authorities removed the statute approximately two weeks after Prime Minister Hasina expressed her support for the clerics’ demand to remove the sculpture from the court premises. The move sparked counterprotests demanding the statue be reinstalled. On May 28, authorities reinstalled the statue in a less prominent space in the Supreme Court compound.
The government continued to provide law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, Christmas, Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.
According to news reports, the government provided extra security to protect Buddhist monasteries in Chittagong and Dhaka in anticipation of possible retaliation for the actions against Rohingya, the vast majority Muslim, by the military and civilians in Burma’s Rakhine State. No attacks materialized.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government maintained significant influence to appoint and remove imams and continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on some aspects of the content of their sermons. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually avoided sermons that contradicted government policy.
The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, which it stated spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools” the government said reflected his teachings. According to civil society organizations, the government overreached in its efforts to ban Peace TV Bangla and could have allowed the locally produced programs featured on the channel to air, even if officials believed censorship of Zakir Naik was necessary.
A media monitoring cell established in 2016 to track media and blogs that write negatively about Hindu, Muslim, and other religious beliefs remained in place.
According to the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC), as of October, authorities had adjudicated approximately 3 percent of 200,000 property restitution cases filed under the Vested Property Return Act and returned a small portion of the land seized mainly from Hindus before the nation’s independence. The BHBCUC said deputy commissioners of the various districts and the Ministry of Law were responsible for the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India. The government did not amend the Vested Property Return Act to accelerate the process of return of land.
President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays.
On November 30, Prime Minister Hasina and other officials met Pope Francis, who, during a meeting at the presidential palace referred to the plight of refugees from Rakhine State and called for “decisive measures to address this grave crisis.” He was the first pope to visit the country in 31 years. Religious leaders across various faiths said they were encouraged by the pope’s visit and what it meant for religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Communal violence impacting minority religious groups continued to result in deaths, injuries, and damage to property. At times, land disputes disproportionately affected religious minorities, particularly the Hindu community. Members of religious minorities also stated they experienced continued discrimination in employment and housing. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On June 2, ethnic Bengalis in Longdu Sub-District of the Rangamati Hill District set fire to the houses of nearly 300 Chakma ethnic tribal people, most of whom were Buddhist. It was reportedly in retaliation for the killing of Nurul Islam, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth front. Ethnic Bengalis stated they blamed local ethnic Chakmas for Islam’s death. A 70-year-old Chakma woman was killed in the fires. Both police and affected ethnic Chakmas filed charges against some of the Bengalis for the arson, and police detained 28 suspects who were later released on bail by the court. Ethnic Chakma community leaders said the government did not arrest the mastermind of the arson attack because of his link to the ruling party.
Unlike in 2016, there were no major incidents specifically targeting religious minorities by extremist groups claiming to be affiliated with ISIS or al-Qa’ida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS).
The Bangladesh Christian Association reported physical injury to a security guard at a church in Pabna on March 10 after aggressors reportedly attacked the guard with sharp weapons. Law enforcement detained three suspects, and the case remained pending at year’s end.
The Bangladesh Christian Association also reported, on October 2, assailants abducted Shishir Natale Gregory, a priest at Saint Mary Cathedral in Dhaka, and demanded a ransom for his release. Gregory was able to escape, and local residents in Tongi detained one of his abductors and turned him over to police. It was unclear if the abduction was religiously motivated.
According to human rights organization ASK, attacks during the year targeting Hindus or their property resulted in the death of one person and injuries to 67, compared with seven killed and 67 injured in 2016. Attackers destroyed 166 statues, monasteries, or temples, compared with 197 in 2016, and destroyed 26 homes and three businesses, compared with 192 homes and two businesses in 2016. The motivation for these incidents was often unclear.
The BHBCUC compiled 959 reports of violations of minority rights from newspaper reports from January to October. The incidents included killings, attempted killings, death threats, assaults, and attacks on homes, businesses, and places of worship, rape, and kidnappings. According to the BHBCUC, the primary motivation for most of the incidents was a desire to seize real property, steal, or extort money.
According to media reports, police still had not filed charges in the case involving the July 2016 killing of 22 persons, most of them non-Muslims, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. The attackers singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. At year’s end, police had not finalized the investigation, and some attackers remained at large.
On September 21, in Dinajpur Hindu worshippers found statues of deities in a temple destroyed. This was the third incident in the district since August 26.
According to The Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, on September 6, Muslim inhabitants attacked the abbot of East Khadacha Ideal Buddhist Monastery in Matiragana Upazila. The abbot was admitted to a local hospital with critical injuries.
On September 12, Muslims in Jessore assaulted a Buddhist monk, Gyanamitra Bhikkhu, from Chittagong, as he was returning home from India. Taifiq Ahmed Sujan, a leader of the ruling Awami League’s student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League, reportedly led the attackers.
On September 23, a Muslim attacked Buddhist monk Agralankar at Cunati Gautam Bihara in Chittagong district. The Bangladesh Buddhist Federation said police took appropriate action as soon as they were informed of the incident.
In November a mob of approximately 20,000 in Rangpur set fire to and vandalized approximately 30 private homes belonging to the local Hindu minority community. The violence followed a Facebook posting demeaning the Prophet Muhammad. A press report stated one person was killed during the incident and five suffered critical injuries.
The mass exodus of Rohingya, the vast majority Muslim, from Burma raised concerns among the Buddhist population about their safety as they feared acts of vengeance from local Muslims. Buddhist organizations formed the Bangladesh United Buddhist Forum in September in the face of perceived threats. The forum organized a human chain in Dhaka on September 8, held a news conference on September 10, and submitted a memorandum to the Embassy of Burma in Dhaka urging the Burmese government to stop atrocities against the Rohingya and resolve its issues through “holistic Buddhist peaceful means.” The forum announced local Buddhist community leaders would curtail spending in observance of two approaching religious festivals and instead allocate the funding for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Similarly, Hindu leaders urged community members to reduce expenses related to the October Hindu festival Durga Puja and divert the money to Rohingya welfare. According to media reports, a group of Islamic clerics reached out to Rohingya Hindus, who also fled from Rakhine to Cox’s Bazar.
At year’s end, law enforcement had yet to conclude its investigation into the October 2016 attack on Hindu homes and temples in Brahmanbaria District. Attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples in response to a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area to obtain their land. Of the 104 persons detained for suspected involvement in the attacks, all but one was released on bail.
NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. The government continued to work to resolve land ownership disputes with an amendment to the existing law that provides for more inclusive decision making and a harmonization of the law with the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.
According to the Bangladesh Christian Association, Muslim real estate investors, in collusion with local government officials, tried to seize land belonging to a Christian family in Miton Village near Dhaka on May 24. The investors launched repeated attacks on the Christian family and physically injured some family members.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the interface between religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism and the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights in security policy. Embassy officials stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints and protecting such minorities from extremist attacks.
Embassy officials also met with government officials to discuss protection and humanitarian assistance for the approximately 700,000 Rohingya who crossed into the country from Burma during the year. The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited refugee camps and makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar to hear directly from Rohingya refugees about their experiences.
As part of community policing training, the embassy encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Embassy officials attended public religious events demonstrating religious tolerance among religious groups. The Buddhist community invited the Ambassador to be a special guest at the occasion of Holy Kathin Cibor Danustan. Embassy officials attended a Puja festival and Diwali festival in honor of the country’s Hindu community. The Ambassador also attended a government-sponsored interreligious and ecumenical gathering for peace during Pope Francis’ November 30-December 2 visit to the country. In all these events, the Ambassador and other embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious tolerance and respect for diversity.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for religious minorities. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, apostolic nuncio, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Commission, Bangladesh Purja Celebration Committee, Baitur Rouf Jame Mosque, Imamat Day of Aga Khan, Cox’s Bazar Model Women’s Kamil Madrassa, and Sheema Bihar Temple. In these meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, identified challenges religious minorities encountered, and discussed the importance of religious tolerance.
Embassy officials met regularly with a working group of 11 foreign missions to discuss a broad range of human rights concerns, including religious freedom.
To encourage civil society’s respect for religious pluralism in the country, the embassy facilitated the participation of representatives of several madrassahs and a professor from the Islamic University in Kushtia in an exchange program on religious education in the U.S. The overarching objective of the program was to explore the role of religion and religious freedom in a multicultural society.
The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief. Rastafarians said they continued to oppose the government requirement for their children to be vaccinated in order to enter school and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology requirement that all Rastafarian children cover their hair when attending school. Muslims stated they continued to object to a government policy requiring women to remove the hijab for identification and passport photographs.
Rastafarians said they continued to face some social discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks, but they said societal attitudes regarding Rastafarianism continued to become more positive. Unknown individuals spray-painted anti-Semitic epithets on the walls of a synagogue in Bridgetown in March.
U.S. embassy officials raised with several government ministries and offices the importance of freedom of religious expression and discrimination issues expressed by some religious minorities, including members of the Muslim and the Rastafarian communities. Embassy officials engaged leaders of civil society and religious groups, including the Muslim, Rastafarian, Anglican, Catholic, and Jewish communities, on freedom of religious expression and on any concerns regarding issues of discrimination.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 292,000 (July 2017 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian. The two largest groups are Anglicans (23.9 percent) and Pentecostals (19.5 percent), followed by Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent). Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other Christian groups. Other religious groups, together constituting less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Bahais. Approximately 20.6 percent of respondents did not identify a religious affiliation. The Barbados Muslim Association states there are 3,000 Muslims.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and prohibition of discrimination based on creed. A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is unenforced.
The government does not require religious groups to register. To obtain duty-free import privileges and tax benefits, however, they are required to register with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office. A religious group must file the relevant customs and tax forms, along with a resolution passed by the majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, plus the group’s related statutory declaration.
The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools to help cover the cost of students who could not find space in a public school. The public school curriculum includes religious “values education” as part of the historic association of schools with Christian missionaries who founded many of the schools. At the primary school level, the focus is on Christianity from several denominations. At the secondary school level, all major religions are included. The constitution protects students from mandatory religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or, if under the age of 21, consent of the guardian.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Rastafarians continued to state their objection to the government’s enforcement of the prohibition on marijuana for any use, which they said made it impossible to fully perform their religious rituals. Rastafarian activists continued to say that police and immigration officials required Rastafarians to remove head coverings and gave extra scrutiny to Rastafarian women at checkpoints, which they said was a pretext for searching for marijuana. Authorities continued to state that the removal of head coverings was part of the government’s security measures, which were applied to all individuals regardless of religious affiliation.
Rastafarian activists continued to state that the requirements for vaccinations for all children to enroll in public schools violated Rastafarian religious beliefs. They also continued to object to the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology requirement that all Rastafarian children cover their hair when attending school.
Representatives from the Barbados Muslim Association said they objected to a government policy requiring women to remove all head coverings for identification and passport photographs. The association continued to ask the government to change its practices to permit head coverings in identification photographs, including passports. The government continued to state that it was a security measure applied to all individuals regardless of religion.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some Rastafarians stated they continued to face societal discrimination, but that they did not face hostile actions and were not refused private or public services. They said some members of society viewed Rastafarians as troublemakers due to their wearing of dreadlocks and their use of marijuana for religious purposes. Some Rastafarians said they believed public opinion of the Rastafarian community was gradually improving; one source said the increase in positive societal attitudes towards Rastafarians was evidenced by the fact that some Rastafarians were now white-collar workers.
Unknown individuals vandalized a synagogue in St. Michael, Bridgetown, in March, spraying red anti-Semitic epithets on the synagogue walls. A synagogue employee said this was the first time an incident such as this occurred. Synagogue employees said they were of the opinion the incident was a “one-off” occurrence and did not reflect the general population’s positive interactions and views of the Jewish faith.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials continued to raise the importance of freedom of religious expression, respect for religious diversity, tolerance, and equal treatment under the law with government officials, including those from the Ministries of Labor, Industry, and Social Care, as well as the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office.
Embassy officials engaged leaders of civil society and religious groups, including the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, on the importance of religious expression and to ask about any concerns regarding societal or governmental discrimination. The Ambassador met with representatives from the Anglican, Catholic, and Jewish communities to discuss their views on the status of their respective religious communities in the country and to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity. The embassy also used Facebook to promote messages about the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity across the Eastern Caribbean.
The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” The law recognizes the “determining role” of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC). A concordat grants the BOC rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional” faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups. The government continued to detain or fine individuals for proselytizing. Minority religious groups, including those associated with the Council of Baptist Churches, continued to have difficulty registering. Some groups remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly due to fear of harassment and punishment. The government also continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups, especially those it labeled as “foreign” or “cults.” Human rights groups said that while BOC and Roman Catholic clergy had access to prisoners of their faiths, Muslim, Protestant, and clergy from nontraditional faiths did not. Protestant and other minority religious groups said they continued to have difficulties obtaining buildings to use as houses of worship. They also reported the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries but also rescinded denials previously given to other clergy.
Jewish community leaders continued to express concern about the BOC’s annual commemoration of a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690 as one of its saints and martyrs. There were reports of vandalism at Jewish memorials in Mahilyou. In February a district court sentenced three individuals for spraying black paint on a monument commemorating Jews killed by Nazis. In May a higher court dismissed their appeal, upholding their conviction. In November Mahilyou police arrested two individuals for stealing parts of metal fencing from graves at a Jewish cemetery. Also in November a Mahilyou court sentenced an individual to six months in jail for inciting ethnic hatred against Russians and Jews and urging killings of Jews in his social media posts.
In September U.S. embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to preservation of Jewish heritage sites. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON), and other groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups, to discuss government restrictions on registration and the activities of minority religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.6 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a January 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration, approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and 6 percent to the Roman Catholic Church. Eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is uncertain. Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include Jews; Muslims; Greek Catholics (“Uniates”); Old Believers (both those who practice their faith with priests, usually termed “priestist,” and those who practice their faith without priests, usually termed “priestless”); and other Orthodox groups in addition to the BOC. This 2 percent also includes Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, ISKON, Bahais, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, tend to be Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious beliefs and to participate in the performance of acts of worship not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters.
The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC in the development of the traditions of the people as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths”: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as “traditional faiths” the newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states the agreement does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s patron saint.
The concordat also serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen such agreements, including an agreement with the Ministry of Education covering cooperation on education through 2020 and providing for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons over the age of 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, one of which must have been active in the country for at least 20 years, and may be constituted only by a national-level religious association. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.
According to government data as of January 1, there are 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,350 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,681 religious communities, 15 dioceses, seven schools, 35 monasteries, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, five schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 496 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 14 denominations have 1,033 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 33 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 52 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.
National religious associations include the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches. National-level Jewish associations include the Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, and Union of Reform Judaism Communities. National Muslim associations include the Muslim Religious Association and Spiritual Board of Muslims. The Religious Association of Bahais is also a national religious association.
To register, a religious community must submit an official application with the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from the regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion; rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches towards marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.
Regional government authorities as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration are broad and include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, or a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.
In order to register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.
The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law contains no provision for appeal of the warning or suspension.
The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from unspecified fines to two years in prison.
The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. The local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. Such permission is not granted automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.
By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.
The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.
Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for the restitution of property to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property currently used for cultural or sports purposes.
The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy; however, it does not permit religious communities to do so.
The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’ sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”
The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.
The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, and senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.
The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. A 2016 provision allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.
Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign religious workers may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. Such permission is generally granted for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.
By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. The authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government continued to detain or fine individuals for proselytizing, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. Minority religious groups continued to have difficulty registering; some groups remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly due to fear of harassment and punishment. The government also continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups, especially those it labeled as “foreign” or “cults.” According to human rights groups, prison authorities denied Muslim and Protestant clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths, access to prisoners of their faiths, while they granted such access to BOC and Roman Catholic clergy. Protestant and other minority religious groups said they continued to have difficulties obtaining buildings to use as houses of worship. They said the government continued to arbitrarily grant or deny permission for holding religious gatherings and denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries but also rescinded denials previously given to other clergy.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were incidents in which authorities briefly detained Jehovah’s Witnesses for proselytizing in Hrodna, Dziarzhynsk, Loeu, and Smarhon. In Smarhon, authorities detained Volha Fiadulava for disseminating Jehovah’s Witnesses printouts in March; however, a local court dismissed her case on April 14. In a similar case, a local court in Hrodna fined two Jehovah’s Witnesses on charges of holding an unauthorized gathering on June 10. A court of appeals reportedly dropped their case in July.
The news service of the international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported police in Lepel detained Council of Baptist Churches members in mid-October and November. According to Forum 18, police detained church members for singing and offering Christian books and magazines to passersby near the town market. Authorities fined church member Andrei Fokin 460 rubles ($230) for reportedly organizing an illegal picket on October 21. They fined him and his wife 460 rubles ($230) and 575 rubles ($290), respectively, for a similar repeated offense on October 30. On November 4, police briefly detained at least nine church members and reportedly questioned them at a precinct. Fokin said police officers injured his face and put handcuffs on another church member so tightly that his hands became numb. On November 10, Fokin’s brother received a fine of 460 rubles ($230) for organizing a demonstration without permission from local authorities. Fokin told the press that he filed a complaint about the mistreatment with the prosecutor’s office; however, there was no response from the prosecutor’s office by the end of the year.
The government continued surveillance on minority religious groups of various Protestant denominations, especially those it labeled “foreign” or “cults.” According to various observers, government ideology officers continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials reportedly had occasional informal talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment. The Roman Catholic Church expressed concerns that in some regions of the country local ideology officers requested the Church provide them Sunday school programs and lists of children attending them.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to continue to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable. Authorities in Barysau refused registration to a Jehovah’s Witnesses community on April 14. Local authorities in Slonim and Vileika continued to deny multiple registration applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities also continued to deny registration to several Protestant religious communities, including a Baptist community in Slonim.
Independent religious experts continued to report minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members continued to be unwilling to provide their names as part of the application process due to fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities. Additionally, a number of them said they did not report registration denials because they believed that if they did not publicize the denials, they might still be able to negotiate their communities’ registration with local authorities.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and due to fear of criminal prosecution. According to independent religious experts, many registered religious communities also remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions because of fear of punishment.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. Authorities continued to deny permission granted in 2014 for a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Homyel to hold religious services at a private home, but allowed it to hold services at rented premises.
Human rights groups reported prison administrators continued to deny Muslim and Protestant clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths (any faiths not among the four recognized as “traditional”), permission to visit inmates in prison. At the same time, they said, authorities continued to grant BOC and Roman Catholic clergy permission to visit believers in prison on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities.
On May 5, authorities in Brest refused to permit a local Full Gospel Church to organize a bicycle ride celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Bible in the Belarusian language in 1517 and to promote Christian values. The community planned to start the ride in Brest and finish in Baranavichy, stopping and meeting with supporters in the towns of Kobryn, Drahichyn, and Pinsk. Authorities banned the ride and the meetings, citing lack of the church group’s coordination with traffic police and claiming, “Mass events in the proposed formats in towns en route are not considered possible.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Minsk city officials approved a request for a convention to take place in the city on July 7. Approximately 7,300 members attended the convention without hindrance. In Vitebsk, authorities denied a similar request to hold a local convention.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to what they said was the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of punishment. Orthodox literature, they said, remained available countrywide. They also said the BOC remained able to proselytize freely and, unlike other religious groups, continued to participate in government-sponsored public events such as rallies without the need to seek prior approval from authorities.
Religious groups continued to report problems purchasing properties as places of worship. They said converting residential property to religious use also remained difficult. Renting a public facility to hold religious services remained difficult as well, especially for unregistered groups. For example, some Protestant communities continued to report they were able to conclude only short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which allowed authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements as a means of preventing religious activities. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups in this regard because they were less likely to own religious facilities and their private homes were too small to accommodate their numbers.
The government continued the requirement for students to use textbooks that representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance towards them, citing chapters in the books that labeled such groups as “sects.” The government did not make changes to these textbooks despite continued requests from religious groups to do so.
School administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways restricting the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. According to the Roman Catholic Church, in April OPRRNA denied Polish citizen Reverend Robert Maciejewski permission to serve at a parish in Mstislaul. Forum 18 said he returned to Poland after serving as a priest in the region for almost 10 years. On May 23, a representative of OPRRNA, Andrei Aryayev, told Forum 18 the office had the right not to give a reason for denial. On October 9, the NGO Aid to the Church in Need published an interview with Archbishop of Minsk Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. In the interview, he described the problems experienced by foreign priests: newly arrived priests had to undergo a lengthy approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; they were often issued a visa for only three to six months; and they often encountered administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas.
In July OPPRNA revoked a previous decision not to renew religious work permits for at least two Polish priests, allowing them to continue their service in the country. The Roman Catholic Church had argued that while OPPRNA alleged the priests received multiple speeding tickets, at least one of them did not drive and did not have a driver’s license, and the traffic police confirmed that they had never held the two liable for speeding. OPPRNA reportedly extended their permits until “the situation was further examined.”
In April local residents in Homyel reported the construction of two luxury apartment buildings began on the grounds of a former Jewish cemetery. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), a Jewish activist filed a motion for an injunction, but the Tsentralny District Court denied his motion on August 21. The JTA said the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, World Jewish Congress, and Union of Public Associations criticized the court’s ruling. Foreign ministry official told the JTA in a statement, however, that sampling for human remains conducted in March in the presence of Rabbi David Kantarovich demonstrated the “absence of human remains in the land,” and the rabbi’s community determined there was “no reason to fear the construction would disturb human remains.” The contractor and the local Jewish community reportedly signed an agreement to cooperate and take appropriate action in the case anything was unearthed at the site. The construction resumed, and local rabbis reportedly did not express any further concerns because there were no claims of unearthed remains since the court hearing. The Israeli ambassador visited Homyel and met with local authorities in September, and the local Jewish community continued to monitor the continuing construction.
There still were no developments regarding the freeze placed on the assets of New Life Church. Minsk authorities renewed their attempts to evict the church from its premises, a process that began in 2007 and continued through 2012 after the authorities refused to register the church at its location. While the church continued to use the space for religious purposes, it remained unable to obtain proof of ownership from the authorities and had no access to electricity. District court bailiffs attempted to enter the premises to issue eviction orders on April 26, but church members refused to allow them in. Church leadership continued to meet with Minsk city authorities to negotiate the status and operations of the church, but without result at the end of the year.
On October 20, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleh Krauchanka met with two high-level Mormon officials to discuss religious operations of their local communities. The government also allowed the two to address their community in Minsk without a special permit for a religious activity.
The authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties based on the harassment from authorities when they tried to raise donations at other locations. The Krishna community reported local authorities harassed and warned them against fundraising in public.
In July media reported many Holocaust memorials built in Soviet times and some others more recently did not acknowledge Jewish victims. During the year, the Jewish community worked with local authorities to erect new monuments that specifically commemorate Jewish victims.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on June 14, doctors in Kamyanets forced an elderly Jehovah’s Witness woman to have a blood transfusion despite her explicit written refusal of blood transfusions.
The BOC, in particular the Minsk-based parish of the Feast of the Presentation of Blessed Virgin, continued its annual commemoration honoring Hauryil Belastoksky, a child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs. Jewish community leaders again expressed concern over the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, the text of which included a passage stating the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”
Jewish community and civil society activists expressed concern regarding pan-Slavic nationalism professed by some extremist groups. Neo-Nazis such as the Russian National Unity group and supporters of similar groups were widely believed to be behind anti-Semitic incidents across the country. Anti-Semitic and xenophobic newspapers, literature, digital video discs, and videotapes, frequently imported from Russia, were widely available.
There were new reports of vandalism at Jewish memorials in Mahilyou. On February 20, a Mahilyou district court convicted three young men for spraying black paint on a monument in November 2016 that commemorated thousands of Jews killed by Nazis in the local ghetto during the Holocaust. The court sentenced two men to up to two and one-half years in prison and gave the third individual a two-year suspended sentence due to his minor age. All three pleaded guilty and admitted to expressing ultraright Nazi ideas and to belonging to a local skinhead group. On May 16, a higher court dismissed their appeal challenging their convictions.
On November 16, the Mahilyou police detained two local residents and charged them with stealing parts of metal fencing from graves at a local Jewish cemetery. The investigation continued at the end of the year.
On November 20, a Mahilyou court sentenced local resident Andrei Kuzmin to six months in prison on charges of inciting ethnic hatred against Russians and Jews and urging killings of Jews in his social media posts, reportedly related to activities of ultraright Ukrainian groups. Authorities arrested him for posting Nazi symbols online on August 9, and he pleaded guilty.
The Bible Society, an interconfessional Christian fellowship center, continued to print and distribute copies of the Bible and other religious literature, including donating Bibles to a children’s home and a hospital in January. Founded by the Belarusian Orthodox, Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, the Bible Society also engaged in educational and charitable projects targeting vulnerable populations.
The BOC, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, and Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches established an interreligious working group under the Minsk-based Belarusian-German International Educational Center when the latter opened in 1994. Jewish religious communities joined the group in 2015. The group worked to maintain an interfaith dialogue among Christian and Jewish denominations by organizing quarterly meetings, seminars on theological themes, trips around the country, and a trip to Siegen, Germany, during the year that focused on interfaith dialogue and social services. The group visited their German counterparts, a local museum, a children’s hospital, and a family center; participated in commemorations at the site of a synagogue burned down in 1938; and met with local authorities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In September embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to the preservation of Jewish heritage sites. Embassy officials followed up with government officials on reports of vandalism and of construction on sites of former Jewish cemeteries.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, and minority religious groups. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups, and government restrictions on registration and operations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ISKON, and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. On social media, embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom during the year.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. The Wallonia and Flanders regional governments passed laws, scheduled to take effect in 2019, banning the ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, effectively outlawing kosher and halal practices. In the continuing aftermath of 2016 terrorist attacks, the government extended its stated efforts to curb radical Islam, particularly following the release of a government report stating Wahhabism constituted a threat to the practice of moderate Islam in the country. A parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Terrorist Attacks recommended oversight of the Great Mosque in Brussels be removed from the government of Saudi Arabia. Despite the federal government’s recommendation of mosques for recognition by the regional governments, the number of recognized mosques initially declined following the withdrawal of official recognition for one mosque in Flanders by the Flemish minister of home affairs due to the reported involvement of the Turkish government in the mosque’s operation. The government recognized several mosques near the end of the year, increasing the total of recognized mosques to 83 at year’s end – a net increase of two compared with 2016. Most public schools continued to ban headscarves as permitted by government policy. The government maintained its ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves in public sector jobs, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the law banning wearing a full-face veil (niqab) in public.
The number of reported anti-Semitic acts and threats almost doubled from 2015 to 2016, the most recent years for which complete data were available. In September in Antwerp, a Belgian convert to Islam verbally and physically attacked a Jewish man. Complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion almost doubled during the year compared with 2016. Most of these complaints involved reports of discrimination against Muslims, especially against Muslim women for wearing headscarves. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) upheld the right of private Belgian employers to ban headscarves.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. Embassy officials continued discussions with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment, and to promote religious tolerance. The embassy supported programs that facilitated interfaith dialogue, raised awareness of religious minorities, and promoted resilience in religious communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (July 2017 estimate). A 2011 report (based on 2009 data) by the King Baudouin Foundation estimates the religious affiliation of the population to be 50 percent Roman Catholic, 33 percent without affiliation, 9 percent atheist, 5 percent Muslim, 2.5 percent non-Catholic Christian, and 0.4 percent Jewish. The Muslim population is highest in Antwerp and Brussels, where some studies estimate it at more than 25 percent of the respective metropolitan areas. According to the report, other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientologists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain updates the estimate of the Muslim portion of the population to approximately 7 percent with no significant changes for other affiliations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of worship (including its public practice) and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be barred from religious ceremonies or from observing religious days of rest, and bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of religious clergy certified by the official organizations of recognized religions and are officially employed in recognized houses of worship.
The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison.
The government officially recognizes Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.
The requirements to obtain official recognition are not legally defined. The legal basis for official recognition is composed of the constitution and other laws and interpretations, some of which predate the constitution itself. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend that parliament grant recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.
The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of religious curriculum, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.
The federal government provides financial support for officially recognized religious groups. The subsidies for recognized groups include payment of clergy salaries, maintenance, and equipment for facilities and places of worship, and tax exemptions. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Unrecognized groups outside of these recognized religions do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly.
There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to obtain recognition and state subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body, and a security check. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from certain tax advantages (but not government subsidies). Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.
There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Women who wear the full-face veil in public face a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($170).
The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. All public schools offer mandatory religious instruction or, alternatively, “moral” instruction (which is oriented towards citizenship and moral values), although parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. A constitutional court ruling in 2015 allows francophone community parents to opt out of primary school religion and ethics classes for their children, pursuant to the court’s finding those classes not to be “objective, critical, and pluralistic.”
Schools provide teachers for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. Teachers of religion are permitted to express their religious beliefs and wear religious attire, even if school policy otherwise forbids such attire. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools following the same curriculum as public schools are known as “free” schools. They receive government subsidies for operating expenses, including building maintenance and utilities. Teachers in these schools, like other civil servants, are paid by their respective linguistic community governments.
UNIA, formerly the Inter-federal Center for Equal Opportunities, is a publicly funded but independent agency responsible for litigating discrimination cases, including those of a religious nature.
The justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and facilitate prosecution of discrimination as a criminal act.
The Walloon and Flanders regional governments, which have jurisdiction over animal welfare, passed laws in May and July, respectively, banning the ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning. In accordance with kosher and halal practices, ritual slaughter should take place only with unstunned animals. The bans are scheduled to take effect in 2019, ending the permission granted to certified permanent slaughterhouses in those regions to slaughter animals without prior stunning. Both regions ban animal slaughter without prior stunning in temporary slaughtering facilities in use during Islamic holidays.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In the continuing aftermath of 2016 terrorist attacks, the government maintained its efforts to curb what it termed radical Islam in the country’s mosques. In January the Ministry of Justice released a report that labeled Salafism a “societal problem” that can lead to jihadism in the country. In February a report by the government’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) was leaked to the media in which CUTA was cited as stating an increasing number of mosques and Islamic centers were “controlled by Wahhabism,” which was the “Salafist missionary apparatus,” and constituted a threat to the practice of moderate Islam in the country.
In its final report issued in October, the parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Terrorist Attacks recommended oversight of the Great Mosque in Brussels be removed from the government of Saudi Arabia, which had been granted a concession to oversee the mosque in 1967, and be transferred to the Muslim Executive, the official interlocutor between the government and the country’s Muslim community. The commission further recommended a broader cross-section of Islamic schools of thought should inform management of the mosque, beyond the Salafi/Wahhabi schools, which had been the previous dominant orientation at the mosque, but which the commission determined represented a possible source of radicalism.
The federal and regional governments stated they remained committed to their previously announced plans to encourage mosques to seek official recognition as a means of increasing government oversight. Although the federal government recommended several mosques for recognition by the regional governments, the number of recognized mosques initially declined during the year from 81 to 80 as the result of the withdrawal of official recognition from one mosque by the Flemish minister of home affairs following media reports that the Turkish government sought to determine the content of religious sermons and politically involve itself in the mosque’s operation. The minister also requested the investigation of another mosque. In the wake of these actions, which prompted a negative reaction from the federal minister of justice who was responsible for recognition at the federal level, the recognition of new mosques in Flanders reportedly remained gridlocked. The Walloon regional government later recognized several mosques, increasing the total of recognized mosques to 83 – two higher than the previous year.
Members of the Jewish community stated the public authorities were more aware and concerned about physical threats to the Jewish community following terrorist attacks in 2016. They stated that authorities had failed, however, to address what they termed “day-to-day” anti-Semitism in the country, including expressions of online hatred and the doubling of documented anti-Semitic acts and threats.
The Buddhist community’s previously filed application for recognition remained pending with the Ministry of Justice as of the end of the year. The government nonetheless continued to provide subsidies to the community in preparation for its recognition as a “nonconfessional philosophical community.”
The Hindu community’s previously filed request for recognition also remained pending with the Ministry of Justice at the end of the year.
The government maintained its ban on wearing religious symbols in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public.
In July in a case brought by two Muslim women challenging the law banning wearing the niqab in public, the ECHR upheld the government’s ban, ruling the ban was not discriminatory. The court agreed that the government had the right to consider the ban necessary in a democratic society in order to guarantee the concept of “living together” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Most public schools continued to ban headscarves, in accordance with the policy allowing individual schools to decide whether to impose such bans. At least 90 percent of public schools sponsored by the francophone community and virtually all Flemish public schools maintained such bans. Of the 98 Brussels public schools, three continued to allow headscarves.
A new institute for the education of Muslim clergy and scholars opened in Wallonia, following 2016 action by the regional government and the government of the francophone community to establish it.
According to Muslim groups, city and town administrations continued to withhold approval or continued to delay approval for the construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. In Court-Saint-Etienne, city authorities denied an application for the construction of a new mosque for the fourth time in the past five years.
The Jewish community issued public statements criticizing the decisions by the Flanders and Walloon governments to ban slaughter without prior stunning as attacks on Jewish religious practices. The Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations stated the two regions had sent a negative political message because these laws did not respect the principle of equality. The Brussels regional government did not authorize any temporary slaughterhouse specifically for slaughter without prior stunning during Islamic holidays as it had done in previous years.
In September the government’s Committee for Bio-Ethics, after a three-year study, issued a report expressing opposition to circumcision for reasons other than medical necessity, which precluded circumcision based on religious custom. Its ruling stated the physical integrity of the child takes precedence over the belief system of the parents. The recommendation was not legally binding, and some members of the committee stated they recognized the practice of circumcision was also an issue of religious freedom. The report issued a unanimous recommendation to stop social security reimbursements for nonmedical circumcisions, valued at approximately 2.6 million euros ($3.1 million) per year.
The Ministry of Justice increased its annual allocation for clergy salaries and other financial support for recognized religious groups by four million euros to 104 million euros ($124.9 million). Catholic groups once