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Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. According to the Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child With A Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The 2018 dismissal of a police officer for being a member of a religious organization triggered a Constitutional Court review of the laws prohibiting police officers’ membership in religious organizations. There were reports the government arbitrarily enforced the law, targeting police officers affiliated with minority religious groups. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke about the importance of freedom of religion and established a working group to review AAC-government relations, the public-school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, and other issues. Some AAC representatives objected to the review, describing the process as a threat to Armenian national identity. In September, built with private funds on private land, the world’s largest Yezidi temple opened in Aknalich Village, Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan spoke at the inauguration, stating, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people.” Some Yezidis interviewed at the celebration said the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction.

Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were again societal incidents of verbal harassment towards the group’s members, to which authorities responded promptly and appropriately. There were 16 reported instances of verbal harassment, compared with 12 in 2018. In November an AAC priest published an article on an AAC website, where he discussed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” He stated, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.” Societal and family pressure also remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than Armenian Orthodox.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to discuss the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation – bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government. In September the Ambassador, with national and local government officials, celebrated the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes in Meghri, Syunik Region. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to convey messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Orthodox. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in 2018, 94 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent Catholic (includes all rites), 3 percent other, and 1 percent none. A May IRI poll listed 94 percent of the population as Armenian Orthodox, 4 percent other, and 1 percent none, with no mention of Catholic affiliation. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.

According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers; however, there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.

The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.

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

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

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($420) to detention for up to two months.

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

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

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.

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

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

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

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

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

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position, and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($420 to $1,100) to prison terms of between three and six years.

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

Government Practices

During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in Armenia. He was arrested and charged in 2017 and held under pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in July 2018. Local NGOs and human rights lawyers shared concerns about the surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest, which they believed was approved in violation of the law because it violated lawyer-client privilege. In April the Baha’i community filed a countersuit against the NSS with the Court of Appeals, stating the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil a Baha’i community member and the community’s office and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. According to the documents provided to the Baha’i community, the surveillance authorizations were approved based on the assertion that Manasyan was the head of a “religious-sectarian” organization and was “soul-hunting,” but no charges were proffered on these grounds.

Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11. There were anecdotal reports that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. According to the December Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with a Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia prepared by local NGOs, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced a number of challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The report identified schools, and HAC classes in particular, as the main setting where the right of minority children to freedom of religion was frequently abused. According to the report, in addition to obliging children of religious minorities to learn about and discuss religious beliefs other than their own, the class often included religious practices such as group prayer, Bible reading, the presence of church clergy in the classroom, school trips to religious sites, and participation in religious celebrations and ceremonies. The report identified widespread discriminatory attitudes as another obstacle to the realization of freedom of religion for minority children, including the usage of “Yezidi” as an insult. According to the report, Yezidi children tended to conceal their identity from teachers and classmates to avoid discrimination. This behavior occurred most often in schools in Yerevan and other locations where Yezidis are a small minority.

Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross, reportedly occurring during those classes, and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. The Ministry of Education again stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda. According to various minority religious groups, the personality of the teacher was the crucial factor in the treatment of minority children in class. Christian groups reported no egregious cases of classroom discrimination. Cases that Christian groups considered as minor, such as perceived unfavorable treatment of a student by a teacher because of the student’s religion, were resolved between parents and schools, according to those groups. Most religious organizations said classroom discrimination was likely more common in the regions outside Yerevan where they said tolerance for religious diversity was less common.

NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity. There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year (September-May), AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in less than 1 percent of all schools. According to official information provided to the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), AAC priests taught the HAC course in six schools, four public and two private.

According to media reports, the government’s plans to review the HAC curriculum and possibly replace it with a broader History of Religions class spurred heated debate, with more traditional groups describing the plans as an attack on Armenian identity and stating the course was needed to stop the spread of “sects.” On November 4, Prime Minister Pashinyan in a live Facebook broadcast discussed the issue of the HAC course, questioning the separate teaching of AAC and general Armenian history classes. In an interview with RFE/RL Armenia, AAC Chancellor Bishop Arshak Khachatryan said the position of the AAC had not changed and that in the Church’s opinion HAC should remain a separate course. In the same media report, historian Vahram Tokmajyan said the ongoing discussions around the HAC were a “fake agenda,” since before any substantive changes could be made to the school curriculum, new official educational objectives had to be adopted, a lengthy process expected to last until 2021-2022. Some observers said the discussion of the HAC course was being used by government opponents to manipulate public opinion.

According to the EPF, the following phenomena connected with the HAC course raised concerns: performing religious rituals or elements of religious rituals during classes; preaching and sowing hatred against religious organizations other than the AAC; equating religious and national identity; sowing intolerance toward other opinions; and hindering creative and critical thinking. According to some minority religious groups, a similar intolerance of religious groups other than the AAC, including slurs insulting minority religions, also occurred in universities.

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

According to the government, as in 2018, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit. The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited penitentiaries seven, four, and 17 times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year for spiritual conversations with convicts.

On March 12, Epress.am, an independent online news outlet focused on human rights, published an article entitled “The Army Converts Atheists.” The article reprinted a copy of a questionnaire, initially posted by a Facebook user and reportedly distributed in military commissariats to be completed by future conscripts. One of the questions was: “Religious affiliation: if you belong to or are affiliated with any religious sect, belief, faction, or organization. You must also indicate since which year, as well as which of your family members belong to this or another belief. If not, fill in as a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.” The government did not respond directly to the news item but stated the Ministry of Defense did not organize discussions or seek information on the religious affiliations of conscripts.

On February 19, the Center for Religion and Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration, requesting the 2017 decision reducing her classes be rescinded, the number of classes she taught restored, she be paid back wages, and the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds be acknowledged. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher had become a subject of discrimination based on her religion after the parents of students had accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The parents initially stopped allowing their children to attend her classes, stating they feared she might indoctrinate them. The acting principal temporarily restored the teachers’ hours despite community pressure, including the threat that he would not be elected principal on a permanent basis unless the teacher was removed. As of early December, the teacher continued to teach at the school, and the acting principal had managed to convince the parents to send their children to her class.

According to the Center for Religion and Law, in October 2018, the national chief of police dismissed longtime police officer, Edgar Karapetyan, on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. According to local observers, the same legal restrictions were not enforced for AAC members. The Center for Religion and Law appealed the dismissal to the Administrative Court and requested Karapetyan be reinstated, paid back wages, and that the court acknowledge he had been subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. The Administrative Court suspended the hearings and appealed to the Constitutional Court to determine if the relevant provisions of the law on police service complied with the constitution. On September 13, the Constitutional Court accepted the appeal. The court did not rule on the case by year’s end.

There were reports from other minority religious groups that their members were discriminated against in seeking public employment. Some individuals employed by public offices or law enforcement said they were afraid to make their religious affiliation known at the workplace or attend church services because they feared losing their jobs if they did so.

Even though there was no mechanism for enforcement of the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.

At year’s end, 129 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 123 in 2018. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals; local utility companies; park maintenance services; and facilities such as boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms).

On January 29, Prime Minister Pashinyan established by decree a working group on government-AAC relations. The prime minister’s chief of staff led the working group, which included deputy ministers of justice, defense, education, and other ministries and agencies, as well as five representatives of the AAC, including Chancellor of the AAC Bishop Khachatryan. Prime Minister Pashinyan and Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II co-chaired the group’s first meeting on May 3. The prime minister noted AAC’s unique role in the preservation of national identity and stated that the working group would review relations between the state and Church and discuss issues such as taxation and the mandatory teaching of the HAC course in schools.

On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan participated in an EPC regional conference held in Yerevan entitled “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” The prime minister emphasized the government’s commitment to religious freedom. In his welcoming speech he stated, “Freedom of religion, freedom to believe in God is first of all the freedom of an individual to believe in himself.”

During Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s participation in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington D.C in July, he stated, “Armenia became a safe haven for a number of vulnerable religious minorities, particularly Yezidis and Assyrians. Today Yezidis are the strongest minority group in Armenia, and we are very proud that the biggest temple of this ancient people very soon will open in their Armenian homeland.”

On September 29, the world’s largest Yezidi temple, Quba Mere Diwane, opened in the small village of Aknalich in Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Mirzoyan said at the opening, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people. The children of the Yezidi people have been standing beside their Armenian brothers at many fatal and heroic moments.” Many Yezidis interviewed at the celebration stated the opening of the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction. A private venture maintained by the family that funded its construction, and sited on private land, the temple attracted tourists during the year in addition to serving as a site for Yezidi funerals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to observers, extremely offensive anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. Some posts commented on a “Turkish-Masonic-Jewish” conspiracy aimed against the Armenian people.

On November 26, an AAC priest published an article entitled “Sects” on the website of one of the churches of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese, where he discussed several religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” According to the priest, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.”

A minority religious group reported that an AAC priest, who in September 2018 blamed the “evangelical sect” for the country’s loss of statehood in the past and accused it of working with the country’s historic enemy, the Turks, continued to enter public schools during the year. The priest urged students not to attend Sunday schools organized by evangelical Christian churches, even though the AAC had reportedly advised him not to provide such advice.

According to media analysts, private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the former government ousted in 2018 continued to use religious issues to denounce the government. According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used various websites, controversial blogs, local troll factories, false Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC).

The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party. According to Word of Life representatives, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church. On April 8, the prosecution charged Iranian-Armenian dual citizen Armen Abi in this case; the investigation continued through year’s end.

There is one Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, serving all Islamic groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials raised reported discrimination against minority religious groups, including religious education in schools. Embassy officials monitored the trial of the Baha’i charged and facing prosecution on what the group stated were religious grounds.

The Ambassador regularly met with representatives of the government, political parties, social groups, and religious minorities to discuss problems of discrimination faced by religious minorities, foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups, and explore cooperative solutions to those problems. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government to discuss issues of concern and foster a dialogue among the groups.

On September 17, the Ambassador and national and local government officials marked the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project in Meghri, Syunik Region. Launched in 2016, the project involved the preservation of the most critically endangered parts of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes, painted in the unique Persian-Armenian style.

The Ambassador met with leaders of the AAC and engaged them on the importance of supporting the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions.

Embassy officials attended conferences and discussions on nondiscrimination, national religious minorities, and religious tolerance regularly hosted by the EPF, including a regional conference held in Yerevan titled, “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” Embassy officials participated in the EPF Annual Media Award jury and February 26 ceremony to support religious tolerance in media.

In October embassy officials visited an Assyrian village in Armavir Region and in December the new Yezidi temple in Aknalich Village. They held regular meetings with representatives of the AAC and religious and ethnic minorities, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as meeting with individual Muslims. In these meetings, embassy officials and religious group representatives discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, including minority religious group concerns. They also met with civil society groups to discuss concerns about the HAC course taught in public schools, as well as the importance of respect for religious freedom in the country.

The embassy used social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to send messages supporting religious diversity and tolerance.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity;” or hinder secular education. Local courts sentenced 57 of the 77 individuals detained after the July 2018 attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, and subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities said those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Human rights defenders considered 48 of these individuals to be political prisoners at year’s end; they also reported that in court hearings throughout the year, these individuals testified that police and other officials tortured them to coerce false confessions. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. Leaders of the political opposition party Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Services officials in Gobustan Prison. Human rights defenders said they considered these and other incarcerated Muslim Unity Movement members to be political prisoners. Estimates of the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 45 to 55 at the end of the year. Authorities briefly detained, fined, or warned individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. The government’s requirements for legal registration were unachievable for communities with less than 50 members. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials. According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. A senior government official stated in May while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment. The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism, including the November 14-15 Baku Summit of World Religious Leaders.

Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, groups viewed as “nontraditional” were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers urged government officials to investigate allegations of serious physical abuse – including alleged torture – of those individuals detained after July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja, and engaged the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of traditional and nontraditional religious groups and civil society in and outside the capital to discuss the situation for religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials met with representatives of various religious groups in Baku and in the regions to discuss religious freedom in the country. Officials had consultations with theologians and civil society representatives and urged the government to implement the constitutionally provided alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

An administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

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

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 ($2900) to 7,000 manat ($4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 ($4,100) to 9,000 manat ($5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses. There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

The Ganja and Lankaran Courts of Grave Crimes sentenced 57 individuals from the 77 persons detained after the July 2018 attack on the then mayor of the city of Ganja and subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. Security forces took 77 individuals into custody and killed five during operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government account of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed did not resist arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku, in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. Civil society activists and human rights defenders said they considered the vast majority of the verdicts as politically motivated.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were 17 incidents between September 2018 and August 2019 in Baku and eight other cities or towns. One follower said two police officers forcibly took a Jehovah’s Witness in Khachmaz to the police station in February. International religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that in February a State Committee official asked the Jehovah’s Witness why he was talking about the Bible and not the Quran. Officers reportedly seized his religious literature, threatened to have him fined, held him for 12 hours without food or water, mocked his beliefs, forced him to write two statements, and then freed him. The Forum 18 report said one police officer threatened to beat him during his detention.

In January former member of parliament Rahim Akhundov stated publicly he had been forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department of the Azerbaijani Parliament due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal unless he chose to resign voluntarily; he said the reason was fabricated. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home and informed parliamentary leadership that he had held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

In February Muslim Unity Movement leaders Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Service officials in Gobustan prison. Authorities partially responded to their complaints, but the prisoners reported ongoing issues.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mixed religious and political ideology. Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat. Human rights defenders and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity similar to previous years. According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year ranged from 45 to 55, compared with 68 in 2018.

On January 30, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade on charges of drug possession. The Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Nuruzade to seven years in prison in March 2018, but activists stated the charges were fabricated to punish him for publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity members Ebulfez Bunyadov and Elkhan Isgandarov, convicted in 2018 on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism, and sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. On July 10, the Nizami District Court ordered Bunyadov’s release on medical grounds.

On February 18, the Baku Court of Appeals ordered the release of Telman Shiraliyev with time served. The Khazar District Court had extended Shiraliyev’s prison term for an additional five months and 18 days for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell, a charge human rights defenders said was fabricated to prevent his imminent release at the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government had not implemented alternative military service for conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution. In April the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. In October Mehdiyev and Abilov filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

On October 17, the ECHR ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country who conscientiously objected to military service should not be criminally convicted. The ruling consolidated four applications to the Court lodged between 2008 and 2015. The applications involved five Witnesses: Mushfig Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Farid Mammadov, Fakhraddin Mirzayev, and Kamran Mirzayev. Each had been convicted and had served a prison term for their refusal to perform military service. The Court found since the Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service was based on “sincere religious convictions,” the country’s actions against them violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered “nontraditional” by the government reported authorities at times subjected them to harassment and fines for conducting religious activities. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported their inability to obtain legal registration. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders reported that their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities discreet. The government said the inability to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members, and no administrative action was taken against unregistered religious communities.

According to a report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April a police officer went to the home of Jehovah’s Witness Gulnaz Nasirova in Lankaran and forcibly escorted her to the police station for interrogation. Police officers reportedly insulted her, threatened to send her to a mental hospital, questioned her about her beliefs and fellow believers, and demanded she provide her family members’ personal data. One officer made a vague threat that he would harm her children, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was detained for five hours before being released.

Religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration, particularly the to have a minimum of 50 members to apply for registration. For instance, Baptists communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration.

The government continued to allocate funds to religious groups. Experts said the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 government prohibition on the publication of theologian Elshad Miri’s book Things Not Existing in Islam. The SCWRA said it prohibited the book because its enumeration of ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage, could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country.

The SCWRA reported during the year, it prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239. By comparison, in 2018 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 1,704, and the publication of 26 books out of 192.

On May 6, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider his appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community. It was Shabanov’s second time appealing to the Constitutional Court; his first appeal was similarly dismissed in January 2018. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.

On April 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses Eldar Aliyev, Maryam Aliyeva, Elchin Bakirov, and Bahruz Kerimov in a civil case against the Mingechevir police department. The plaintiffs sought compensation of 500 manat each for the 2016 police raid on a prayer meeting in Mingachevir that they stated violated their religious freedom. On June 23, according to Forum 18, three police officers in Mingachevir tried to search the home of a Jehovah’s Witness where other Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered. They took the names of those present, but when they tried to search the home without a warrant the homeowner refused to allow it. The officers left, saying they would return with a warrant, but did not.

On June 4, the Shirvan Court of Appeals upheld the April 16 verdict of the Sabirabad District Court that fined husband and wife Safqan Mammadov and Gulnar Mammadova 1,500 ($880) manat for holding an illegal religious gathering for minors in their home. The Baptist couple stated they held a secular New Year’s celebration for community children in their home, and that police interrupted the event and characterized it as a Christian meeting by a non-registered group, which would make it illegal.

Following the December 2018 police dispersal of a prayer meeting of Christians Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov, and Jalil Rahimli, the Sheki District Court fined them 1,500 ($880) manat each in separate hearings December 19, 2018 and January 3 for violating an administrative code that prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies”.

On March 3, the SCWRA registered the Baku community of the Fire Christian Church. On July 11, the SCWRA registered the Baku Christian communities of Star in the East and Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 34 religious communities, of which 31 were Muslim and three Christian, compared to 90 religious communities registered in 2018, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian. The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 941, of which 35 were non-Muslim: 24 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.

A March 16 presidential pardon that released a number of individuals considered political prisoners by human rights defenders included at least 16 religious activists, including 11 individuals arrested after a large police operation that targeted members of the Muslim Unity Movement in November 2015.

The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status were prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request, an authority the SCWRA said it could employ when necessary. Jehovah’s Witness and other communities have benefited from these letters.

According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. Aynur Veyselova, a senior advisor at the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, stated in May that while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment.

On May 24, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1,1800,00 ) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, compared with one million manat ($590,000 in 2018) and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews (250,000 manat – $147,000 in 2018). The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,000) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku (100,000 manat – $59,000 in 2018) and 100,000 manat ($59,000) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to “traditional” minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust. For example, one Baptist leader stated common citizens, as well as police and local government officials, did not understand or trust his community.

Sevda Kamilova, a linguist, stated she interviewed with several international companies, but each time was asked if she would be willing to remove her headscarf while working.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate the release of those they believed wrongly convicted of wrongdoing related to the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed for the implementation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution, and met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. For example, the Ambassador called on the country to continue promoting religious tolerance in a November 20 meeting with the CMB Head Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with the leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including challenges in registration, raids and subsequent fines against nontraditional groups for holding “unauthorized” religious meetings, and the prohibition of publication of books deemed sensitive by the government.

On May 30, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for a community of internally displaced persons who benefited from U.S.-sponsored programs. Representatives of SCWRA, the CMB, the State Committee for Affairs of Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons and others also attended the event. The Ambassador’s remarks highlighted the importance of religious tolerance as a key element of religious freedom.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

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.” The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. Authorities detained a number of clerics over the content of their sermons during the commemoration of Ashura in September; all were subsequently released without charge. In January authorities released Majeed al-Meshaal, the head of the Shia Scholar’s Council, who was sentenced in 2016 to two and a half years in prison. On June 9, the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) banned al-Meshaal from delivering Friday sermons on the grounds that he was inciting hatred. In March the criminal court sentenced 167 individuals to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years for their participation in the 2016 Diraz sit-in held by supporters of Isa Qassim, identified by media as the country’s leading Shia cleric. On July 30, authorities placed Shia cleric Sheikh Isaal al-Qaffas in solitary confinement in Jaw Prison for protesting the execution of two Shia. On August 30, Jaw Prison authorities banned inmates from gathering in large groups to commemorate Ashura in the corridors. The prison permitted inmates to conduct observances in small groups in their cells from 8:00 to 9:00 each night. In general, non-Muslim religious minorities reported they could practice their religion openly without fear of interference from the government. In August the government authorized work to begin on the renovation and expansion of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple during a visit by the Prime Minister of India. In December the King Hamad Centre for Global Peaceful Coexistence cohosted two roundtables on religious freedom, bringing together Shia and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews. The King Hamad Centre cited the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the United States in July for providing the impetus to hold these events.

Some representatives of the Shia community continued to state that the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were a result of discriminatory hiring practices. Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including statements that some prominent former and current Shia political leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants.” According to non-Muslim religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Buddhist, and Jews, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs, traditions, and houses of worship. Although no law prevented individuals from converting from one religion to another, societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State and Ambassador, and other embassy representatives met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials also continued to advocate that the government pursue political reforms that 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 a broad spectrum of religious groups, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practices.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, there are approximately 689,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population. According to 2018 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments (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 MOJIA waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Muslim groups must register with the 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 MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups, but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman, as part of the MOI, 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, which are appointed by the king with recommendations from the president of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites. According to the government, since August, MOJIA no longer funds endowment board members’ salaries. Endowment boards, like the remainder of MOJIA employees, now fall under the Civil Service Bureau, which is overseen by the crown prince-led Civil Service Council. Annually, the government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) to each endowment board. Tithes, income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

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

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

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

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

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. The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia. The personal status law states either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, shall govern depending on the religious affiliation of the party. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court. Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Government Practices

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

The press reported on July 27 that the government executed two men, Ahmad al-Mullali and Ali Hakim al-Arab, both Shia citizens, for crimes related to the 2017 shooting of a police officer. Following the executions, Reuters reported that protests broke out in the country, including “several Shia villages and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital.”

The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics.

On January 29, authorities rearrested the chairman of the dissolved Ulama Council, Sheikh Majeed al-Meshaal, several hours after he was released from prison where he spent two-and-a-half years for holding an illegal gathering during the 2017 Diraz sit-in by supporters of senior Shia leader Isa Qassim. Al-Meshaal appeared before the Public Prosecutor on February 2 on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.” On February 17, the Public Prosecutor extended his detention for an additional 15 days pending investigation. Authorities released him from detention on February 27. Al-Meshaal condemned the revocation of Qassim’s citizenship and called for witnesses in Qassim’s hometown of Diraz to speak out. On June 9, authorities banned al-Meshaal for an indeterminate period from delivering Friday sermons in the Diraz mosque for inciting hatred. According to an Iranian media source, in September the government barred al-Meshaal from overseas travel.

On June 11, authorities summoned Shia cleric Mulla Abbas al-Jaziri for inciting sectarian sedition but released him on the same day. Activists said al-Jaziri “was investigated over a religious event held in the holy month of Ramadan, on the martyrdom of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb.”

On July 30, authorities placed Shia cleric Isaal al-Qaffas in solitary confinement in Jaw Prison for protesting the execution of Shia prisoners Ahmad al-Mullali and Ali Hakim al-Arab. In 2016 authorities arrested, convicted, and sentenced al-Qaffas to 10 years imprisonment for involvement with what the government referred to as the “Bahrain Hizballah terrorist organization.” In December the public prosecutor charged al-Qaffas with insulting the king and inciting hatred against the government.

Authorities summoned Shia cleric Mohammed Saleh al-Qashmaei for questioning on May 29 and released him the same day. Al-Qashmaei previously spent one year in prison before being released in 2018. The government also arrested his son and daughter “for harboring prisoners.” His son, Abul Fadhl, was serving 15 years in prison. His daughter was sentenced to five years in January 2018; her sentence was subsequently reduced to three years, and she was released on August 8.

According to press and NGOs, in March the criminal court sentenced 167 individuals out of 171 originially charged to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years for their participation in the 2016 Diraz sit-in. In May the Supreme Court of Appeals reduced the longer, 10-year sentences, to seven years and six months in prison.

International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 25 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the September 1-10 Ashura commemoration, the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated these individuals “for the content of their sermons” and for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight; others were detained and released the same day; while others remained in custody for several days or weeks.

According to human rights NGOs, on July 28, authorities summoned Shia cleric Abdul Nabi al-Nashaba to the Qudaibiya police station in Manama. They arrested him upon arrival and brought him before the Public Prosecution on July 29, where he was ordered detained for 15 days pending an investigation of charges of “contempt of a sect.” Authorities remanded him to jail, releasing him in September with four other clerics: Isa al-Moaemen, Mulla Qassim Zain al-Dine, Mahmood al-Ajaimi, and Muneer Maatooq.

On June 1, the Court of Casssation, the country’s highest court of appeal, upheld life sentences for 55 detainees charged with belonging to the Dhul-Faqar Brigades terror cell.

On April 16, the High Criminal Court ruled on a case involving 169 Shia defendants whom the government accused of being members of the “Bahraini Hezbollah.” Of the 169 total defendants, 69 were sentenced to life in prison, 70 received sentences between five to 10 years in prison, and 30 were acquitted; 96 of the defendants were ordered to pay a 100,000 dinar ($265,000) fine. The court revoked the citizenship of 138 of the 169 defendants. On June 30, the Court of Appeals, at the direction of the king, overturned the revocation of citizenship of 92 of these individuals. Reuters reported the government denied deliberately targeting the Shia opposition, saying it was acting only to preserve national security.

On July 9, the High Criminal Court sentenced Shia cleric Mulla Mohammed al-Madhi to one year in prison for “insulting the companions of prophet Muhammed” in a sermon he delivered during Ramadan.

On August 4, the Public Prosecutor filed an urgent motion against Ali Mohammed Saeed Ali Jassim, a Sunni activist and member of the Unitary National Democratic Assemblage, for insulting Islam and blasphemy on social media. His case was referred to the criminal court for an urgent trial. On September 18, he was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison.

Media reported in January the Court of Cassation upheld life sentences against Ali Salman, former leader of Wifaq, and former Wifaq members of parliament (MPs) Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali al-Aswad, for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government. Wifaq is a banned political movement with strong links to the country’s Shia community. In 2018 an appeals court reversed a lower court’s acquittal and sentenced Salman, as well as Sultan al-Aswad, who were both tried in absentia, to life in prison for conspiring with Qatar. The UN Human Rights Office and international NGOs, including Amnesty International, said there were serious doubts whether the court proceedings respected the right to a fair trial. In a separate case, authorities previously sentenced Salman to four years imprisonment for “inciting hatred.”

According to the press, on August 21, a criminal court sentenced four individuals to seven years each in prison for belonging to the Al-Mukhtar Brigade, a Shia group that the government and the United Kingdom and some other countries have designated as a terrorist organization.

On August 30, a criminal court sentenced nine individuals (including two brothers) to five years in prison for belonging to an Iraqi Hizballah group.

The press reported in February that Isa Qassim, identified by media as the leading Shia cleric in the country whom the government allowed to travel to London in mid-2018 for medical treatment, announced his relocation to Iran. The government stripped Qassim of his citizenship in 2016 and held him under house arrest before permitting him to travel for required medical care overseas.

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

On April 21, the king issued a decree reinstating the citizenship of 551 individuals previously convicted and stripped of their nationality in a series of mass trials. According to NGOs, there were 990 citizenship revocations in the country since 2012, including 180 during the year. The BBC reported that many of the individuals who lost their citizenship were human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars. According to Reuters, activists said most of those covered by the decree were from Shia families. On September 18, Zainab Makki, originally arrested in 2017 for alleged membership in an Iranian-sponsored Shia terrorist group, reported that she has not been able to get her passport back following the king’s decree. Makki spent one year in jail on charges of harboring terrorists and hiding explosives in her house; she completed her sentence on March 29 and was released from prison.

According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that restrictions imposed by prison authorities effectively denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. Bahrain Interfaith, an NGO focusing on religious rights and interfaith dialogue, reported Shia prisoners were “subjected to humiliation, persecution, ill treatment, and denial of [medical] treatment.” In August a large number of prisoners began a hunger strike in Jaw Prison to protest prison conditions, including the lack of health care. According to the state news agency, the Office of the Ombudsman conducted an investigation into the hunger strike following reports about the prisoners’ action in social media. Regarding prisoners’ requests to hold collective worship, the Ombudsman stated prison authorities had cited a requirement to “maintain order and to respect the religious beliefs of others.” The Office of the Ombudsman concluded that its investigation did not justify the filing of an official complaint with the government. The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasi-governmental organization established by royal decree in 2016, visited Jaw Prison on August 18 and met with some of the individuals on hunger strike. NIHR released a statement saying that it was carefully following the issue to ensure “the health and safety of the inmates and their enjoyment of all their rights and freedoms” and said it would submit its observations and recommendations to the appropriate authorities.

On August 30, Jaw Prison authorities banned inmates from gathering in large groups to commemorate Ashura in the corridors, according to NGOs. The prison, however, allowed inmates to conduct observances in small groups in their cells from 8:00 to 9:00 each night.

The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. NIHR continued to state it had not received any cases of prisoners being subject to harassment or ill-treatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation.

In February the head of the Jaafari Waqf sent a letter to King Hamad complaining about the interference of the MOJ in the work of the Jaafari Waqf. In May the MOJ referred to the National Audit Bureau a corruption case against the Jaafari Waqf. In June the king issued a decree appointing a new chairman and new members to the Jaafari Waqf.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public employees, members of parliament, or ministers. However, according to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni Muslims. Following parliamentary elections in 2018, sources suggested that of 40 seats on the Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. None of the current members of parliament ran on an explicitly sectarian platform. Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

The government reported 596 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers; authorities increased the number of licensed Shia places of worship to 754 mosques, while the number of ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries) remained the same at 618. The government reported it granted 30 permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and an additional 30 permits to build Shia mosques and ma’atams. The government stated that determining whether a mosque would be Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds their actions jeopardized national security. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura, commemorating the death of Hussein) throughout the country, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. During the annual two-day public holiday for Ashura, most public schools and government offices were closed. The government permitted public reenactments of the death of Hussein and public marches in commemoration of Ashura. As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders. The NGO Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported “at least 17” instances involving police removal of Shia banners and signs. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.

According to press reporting, Minister of Interior Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa met with the head of the Jaafari Waqf and other Shia leaders prior to Ashura and told them, “the organizers of the religious rituals should control situations by not allowing the exploitation of … processions for goals far from the main reason for the occasion, such as holding slogans or images of religious or political personalities or foreign groups.” He reportedly said violation of MOI guidance was prohibited and would not be allowed. According to press reports, the minister stated that the role of authorities and Shia leaders was the protection of the privacy of the places of worship and to perform violation-free rituals.

On September 18, in an oral intervention at the UN Human Rights Council, an NGO representative stated, “MOI officials also play an important role in ongoing religious discrimination, arresting and detaining religious leaders and clerics during Ashura, interrupting religious processions, and harassing members of Bahrain’s Shia community during prayer times.”

The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious 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.

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

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 August the government announced that it would allow a large-scale renovation and extension of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple in the Manama souq.

Authorities permitted some churches to build larger premises on a different location, but at year’s end, these churches had not received MOLSD’s final approval for the location of the new facilities. Government contacts reported that land scarcity was the reason for this delay.

There was no progress reported on the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church in Manama following the announcement in 2016 by the king that he would permit the construction of the church. Construction continued on a Catholic cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which was scheduled for completion by mid-2021.

In April the Al-Wifaq opposition society reported 11 Shia mosques out of 30 mosques destroyed or damaged in 2011 had not been repaired or reconstructed. Others were transformed into public parks or completely removed. The MOJIA, however, reported in 2018 it had concluded reconstruction to the extent feasible of 27 of the 30 mosques destroyed or damaged in 2011, in compliance with the recommendations of an independent fact-finding commission. NGOs stated authorities did not allow the construction of new mosques in Rifaa and ma’atams in Hamad Town despite numerous requests from community members.

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

According to the MOJ, officially registered organizers of Haj and Umrah pilgrimages needed to abide by strict rules to maintain their licenses. There were no reports by NGOs or in media of favoritism or discrimination regarding the allocation of Hajj visas to Sunni and Shia Muslims.

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

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

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

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

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

The government continued to impose fines ranging from 50 to 400 dinars ($130-$1,100) for defacing the country’s passports. When announcing the fines in 2018, it stated that writing, tearing, or stamping a passport was illegal unless done by authorized immigration officials in the country or overseas. The NIHR stated the ban included any alterations by ministries, embassies, hotels, banks, or tourism agencies. Often tourism agencies, hotels, and other individuals at overseas religious sites placed stickers or wrote on the passports. Former Shia MP Ali al-Ateesh said the law targeted citizens for visiting [Shia] religious sites in Iran and Iraq, while those with unofficial markings from other destinations were not held accountable. Other MPs said the rule did not target sects, religious tours, individuals, or countries.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations. 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 2018 the foreign minister announced the government planned to create a position of ambassador at large for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom; the position remained vacant at year’s end.

Press editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. Representatives of the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, led by a Board of Trustees comprised of representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, met with governmental and religious groups in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, where they also met with government and civil society leaders. The center cohosted two roundtables on religious freedom in Manama on December 8 and 9. The December 8 roundtable was a partnership between the center and the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. The event held the following day, entitled “The Launch of Middle East and North Africa International Religious Freedom Roundtable,” was cohosted by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, a U.S. NGO. Both events brought together representatives from a wide variety of religions, including Shia and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews. At the December 9 roundtable, King Hamad Centre Chairman Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa al-Khalifa sat next to the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar. NGOs later said they were concerned that Manama was the venue for the conference, given “the government’s longstanding refusal to respect religious freedom” and that the conference needed to be accompanied by “practical measures that prevent … sectarian-based discrimination … including policies that deprive the country’s Shiite[s] of their natural right to fully enjoy full Equal Citizenry.”

Local press again featured photographs of senior government officials, including the crown prince, visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families throughout the country.

Christian community leaders stated they continued to search for a suitable location for a new non-Islamic cemetery. While the government continued to work with them to identify a location, they did not identify a site during the year.

According to local media and community representatives, there were cremation facilities for the Hindu community. These facilities, however, were located outdoors and in the populated area of Buhair, and were the subject of complaints over health and environmental concerns from area residents for some time. On September 6, the Southern Municipal Council announced that Hindu cremation would be handled by a specialized company in indoor crematories. The cremations would take place in the Salmabad and Awali areas, far from residential areas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Posts stated that former Shia leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants,” used the hashtag “Iran Supports Sedition in Bahrain,” and displayed images of prominent Shia figures Ali Salman and Isa Qassim. Anti-Sunni commentary largely focused on characterizing individuals as “apologists” for the government and sometimes went as far as calling individuals “mercenaries.”

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the foreign minister and minister of justice and Islamic affairs, to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy staff attended the two roundtables focusing on religious freedom in Manama on December 8 and 9 that were hosted by the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, which cited the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington as the impetus behind these events.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices. These exchanges included the Ambassador’s meetings with Shi’a leaders during a visit to a ma’atam during the commemoration of Ashura in September. The Ambassador and embassy staff members visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including the observation of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. The embassy also continued to support religious freedom through its online presence. On International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy tweeted, “In honor of National Religious Freedom Day we recognize the Bahraini government for their continued efforts in supporting an environment which fosters freedom of religion. #sharedvalue.”

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of “enmity against God,” including two Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority prisoners at Fajr Prison on August 4. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, beatings in custody, forced confessions, poor prison conditions, and denials of access to legal counsel. International media and human rights activists reported authorities in Qarchak Prison for Women routinely targeted Gonabadi Sufi inmates for mistreatment and denied them access to legal counsel. In January the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi Order in Iran, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. Human rights organizations, as well as UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman, widely decried Ahmadi’s mistreatment, along with that of 10 Gonabadi Sufi women serving prison sentences at Qarchak. They also deplored the high number of deaths and arrests in ethnic and religious minority provinces that, according to the organizations, resulted from the government’s excessive use of force against protesters during November demonstrations. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. In March CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms of up to 26 years each on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to media, these individuals were among the more than 300 Gonabadi Sufis arrested in 2018 for protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader and the arrest of a fellow devotee, Nematollah Riah. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, non-Armenian Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported in September authorities sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “supporting opposition groups,” and “propaganda against the state.” The website IranWire reported that between March and October judiciary officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is, and during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial in various cities across the country. According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati to serve a one-year prison sentence after he was tried in absentia for defending the “false Baha’i Faith.” On February 10, according to NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents arrested a pastor from Rasht and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to his congregants. Yarsanis stated authorities continued to discriminate against and harass them. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher education opportunities for members of religious minorities and confiscated or restricted their use of religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on businesses owned by Baha’is or forcing them to shut down. The government continued to crack down on public displays of protest of the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. In August international media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to a May report by CHRI, state agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of minority religious groups, particularly those of Gonabadi Sufis. The Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported Baha’is remained barred from government employment at the local, provincial, and national levels, not only in the civil service but also in such fields as education and law.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. At the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom…We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs, and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.” On August 2, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz, whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.” The United States supported the rights of members of minority religious groups in the country through actions in the United Nations. In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 84 million (midyear 2019). Muslims are estimated to constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of which 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers above 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and CHRI estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 – significantly reduced from a peak of approximately 300,000 prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are areligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s (AI) report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims. These activities are considered proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. Some exceptions are made for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for “enmity against God” (which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi schools of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. Any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups, or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, is considered Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahle Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with the authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. Individuals who convert to Christianity are not recognized as Christian under the law. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The supreme leader, the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The IRGC also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The MOE supervises the private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian). To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

The constitution bans the parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of the codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents, and not for other categories of death such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the supreme leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Rehman expressed deep concern about the government’s use of “excessive” force during the November protests in provinces with a majority population of ethnic minorities. The report pointed to the highest number of deaths in these provinces, with at least 84 persons killed in Khuzestan (predominantly Sunni Arab) and 52 in Kermanshah (predominantly Kurdish). IranWire, citing an unnamed Khuzestan official, reported on December 17 that the total number of protester fatalities in Mahshahr, a major city and residence for Ahwazi Arabs in the region, was 148 over five days. On December 1, The New York Times reported IRGC forces killed as many as 100 protestors on a single day, many of whom were local Sunni Arab citizens, by machine gun fire in a marshland in Mahshahr. The special rapporteur also reported officials arrested dozens of activists from ethnic minorities, including Kurds and Azerbaijani-Turks, as well as 10 Baha’is who were arrested in Baharestan on November 29 and 30.

According to AI, authorities executed Abdullah Karmollah Chab and Ghassem Abdullah, two Sunni Ahwazi Arab-minority prisoners, at Fajr Prison on August 4, after they were convicted on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with an armed attack on a Shia religious ceremony in Safiabad. The convictions and executions proceeded despite AI’s and other human rights NGOs’ concerns regarding what they stated was the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.

The NGO Iran Human Rights reported on May 23 that authorities hanged Mehdi Cheraghi on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with the robbery of a jewelry shop in April 2015. According to the report, authorities hanged Cheraghi in public, in the city of Hamadan, during Ramadan. Iran Human Rights also reported authorities executed two prisoners, Hossein Roshan and Mohsen Konani, at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj on charges of “enmity against God” on October 2. Authorities originally arrested and convicted the two prisoners for armed robbery.

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 27, international media reported police in Sistan and Baluchistan Province shot and killed a young Sunni Baluchi man, Mousa Shahbakhsh, after he did not follow orders to stop following a police pursuit because he did not have a driver’s license. Following his death, protests broke out at the governor’s office in the provincial capital of Zahedan; authorities arrested approximately 30 protesters. Media reports noted a tense relationship between the Sunni Baluchi population and the Shia authorities.

AI reported on June 26, Benyamin Alboghbiesh, a Sunni Ahwazi Arab arrested on May 26, died under suspicious circumstances at a detention center believed to be under the control of the IRGC in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. Alboghbiesh’s mother and brother were arrested with him and remained detained at year’s end. Intelligence agents notified Alboghbiesh’s family on June 26 of his death. AI raised concerns that he might have been tortured. AI urged authorities to undertake immediately an impartial investigation into Alboghbiesh’s death and to hold accountable anyone found responsible.

According to HRANA and AI, after arresting Kurdish singer Peyman Mirzazadeh in February, authorities sentenced him to a two-year prison term in May and flogged him 100 times on July 28 for sabb al-nabi, or “insulting the prophet” (80 lashes) and drinking alcohol (20 lashes). AI said the flogging left Mirzazadeh “in agonizing pain with a severely swollen back and legs.”

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards routinely targeting Gonabadi Sufi prisoners for mistreatment, such as encouraging other inmates to physically abuse them. In January CHRI reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi order, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. She reportedly had said that another imprisoned Gonabadi Sufi, Shahnaz Kianasl, did not receive proper medical attention.

In his July report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran commented on Ahmadi’s case and those of other Gonabadi Sufis at Qarchak Prison. According to the report, “The special rapporteur is deeply concerned about the situation of members of the Gonabadi Dervish community who remain in detention in Qarchak Prison without access to their lawyers since the protests of 2018. This includes at least 10 women serving prison sentences of up to five years.” CHRI and the special rapporteur reported that in April, according to an unnamed source, a fellow inmate beat Sima Entesari, a Gonabadi Sufi detainee at Qarchak Prison, after prison authorities promised the attacker a case review if she assaulted her fellow prisoner, and they promised to consider her request for conditional release if she attacked Sufi dervishes. The special rapporteur also reported the authorities placed Entesari and four other Gonabadi Sufi detainees sentenced on national security charges in the same ward as prisoners convicted of drug-related charges, theft, and social crimes, in contravention of the prison’s regulations.

Human rights NGOs also reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities in Great Tehran Penitentiary. On January 28, CHRI reported two Gonabadi Sufi dervishes – Hassan Shahreza and Vahid Khamoushi – were denied medical treatment for infected wounds received when security forces shot them with pellet guns during protests in 2018. According to CHRI, Shahreza reportedly retained 200 pellets in his body, which had led to the infections. In addition to pellet gun wounds, Khamoushi had a broken ankle. CHRI reported authorities denied both men access to medical care.

CHRI reported Mitra Badrnejad, a Baha’i woman arrested in March 2018 during a raid by security agents on her home, began her one-year prison sentence on September 22. The revolutionary court in Ahvaz convicted Badrnejad of “membership in the Baha’i Organization” and “propaganda against the state,” with a sentence of five years in prison and two years in exile. Upon appeal, the sentenced was reduced to one year. According to her son, authorities held Badrnejad in solitary confinement for 50 days in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center and in Ahwaz’s Sepidar Prison. Her son also said authorities blindfolded her during interrogation and subjected her to threats and other forms of psychological abuse.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Mohabat News reported that on January 23, eight security officers raided the Isfahan home of Christian convert Sina Moloudian and arrested and beat him, leaving bruise marks on his face. The officers also confiscated cellphones, computers, Bibles, and other religious materials. Authorities emphasized they had been monitoring Moloudian for months prior to the arrest. He was released on bail on February 4.

On February 7, HRANA reported special forces agents beat several Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison. According to HRANA, the beatings came in retaliation for Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi’s refusal to attend his court hearing. Ghoreishi, Hamzeh Darvish, Marivan Karkuki, and Namegh Deldel were among the Sunni inmates severely injured in the beatings.

On February 12, a Baloch NGO reported security guards in the city of Iranshahr, in Sistan and Balochistan Province, shot and killed a young Baluchi man, Davood Zahroozah, while he was transporting fuel in his personal vehicle. HRANA reported a Balochi man, Muhammad Kurd, was shot and killed on February 9 by security forces when they opened fire on his vehicle without warning as he was transporting fuel for sale, a common activity in that region that the government viewed as “smuggling.” According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, at least 103 were imprisoned on charges of “enmity against God”, 49 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 15 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam,” and 15 for “corruption on earth.” At least 10 were arrested for a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (“baghi”), which officials have used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”

Noor Ali Tabandeh, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Surfi order, died on December 24 after almost two years of house arrest and denial of urgent medical care. He was under house arrest resulting from 2018 protests in Tehran. According to the Majzooban Noor website, as of March, approximately 110 dervishes remained imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison. On March 15, CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms ranging from six to 26 years each, which included 74 lashes, two years in exile, a two-year ban on social media and interviews, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad for each. Charges included “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to the November CHRI report, Gonabadi Sufi religious centers remained closed following the 2018 protests.

According to the July report to the UN General Assembly from the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, on March 13 Amir Noori, a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against the internal security of the country, and disrupting public order.” Noori lost a finger during the 2018 protests, when authorities initially arrested him.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. In January IranWire reported security agents detained and threatened at least three Sunni seminary students and clergymen traveling from Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Mashhad and banned them from entering Sunni seminaries and mosques. Similarly, according to the same report, intelligence agents detained another group of Sunni seminary students traveling from Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Khaf, in Khorasan Province. The agents inspected their phones, notebooks, and cars and forced them to return to Zahedan.

HRANA reported that on September 24, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term. Ghoreishi, the former imam of Friday prayers at Imam Shafi’i Mosque in Talesh, was originally arrested in April 2014 and had just completed a five-year sentence. The 16-year sentence was based on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security (10 years), “supporting opposition groups” (five years), and “[disseminating] propaganda against the state” (one year).

IranWire reported the arrest of several Baha’is in late November, noting the reasons for the arrests were unclear but appeared related to claims Baha’is had led and spurred on the nationwide protests. On November 27 and 29, security officers in Baharestan, a satellite city of Isfahan, arrested at least ten Baha’is – Soroush Azadi, Shahab Ferdowsian, Nasim Jaberi, Mehranollah Daddy, Shahbaz Bashi, Vahid Niazmand, Naser Lotfi, Ghodus Lotfi, Saghar Manouchehrzadeh, and Homa Manouchehrzadeh – and took them to an unknown location. Following Friday prayers, residents of Baharestan held up signs calling for the arrest of Baha’is and protesters. On November 30, a social media application, Telegraph, reported the arrestees in Baharestan were of Baha’is involved in the unrest and called for them to receive the worst possible punishment.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

According to the Geneva-based Baha’i International Community (BIC) and the UN special rapporteur’s June report, more than 49 Baha’is remained in prison. According to BIC, the Baha’i citizens were arbitrarily detained, and some were subsequently given harsh sentences due to their professed faith and religious identity. IranWire reported between March and October, officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is since the appointment of a new chief justice earlier in the year. It said during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial. According to media and NGO reports, Baha’is continued to face charges that included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” “espionage and collaboration with foreign entities,” and “actions against national security.” Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution offering mainly distance learning, that the government considered illegal. According to BIC, in many cases, authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRANA, IranWire, and Iran Press Watch (IPW) reported that on April 30, MOIS masked agents arrested three Baha’is in Semnan – Ardeshir Fanaeian, Behnam Eskandarian, and Yalda Firoozian – following a search of their homes. According to the reports, the three were initially held at an unknown location without the right to legal counsel and were accused of “propaganda against the regime.” According to an updated October Iran Wire report, the three were detained in the central prison of Semnan and the judge handling the case held them without clear reason, despite the completion of their interrogations three months prior. In August Iran Wire and IPW reported prison officials allowed inmates to beat Eskandarian, resulting in a ruptured ear, blood clots, and severe inflammation of the inner ear. According to the report, guards observed the attack but did nothing to intervene. On December 16, following an initial ruling by the revolutionary court in Semnan in October, the Semnan Court of Appeals sentenced Fanaeian to a prison term of six years, Eskandarian to three years and six months, and Firouzian to two years and six months.

According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati in his home. Hajati’s wife stated the day before, Hajati had received a text message notifying him authorities had sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison and two years of exile. On June 19, IPW reported 29 prominent political and civil rights activists issued a statement strongly condemning Hajati’s imprisonment. International media and human rights NGOs reported the government previously detained him for 10 days in 2018 for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. Following that detention, the judiciary placed Hajati under surveillance and banned him from holding his seat on the council for approximately three months.

CHRI and international media reported authorities in February sentenced Mehdi Moghaddari, a member of the Isfahan City Council, to six months in prison for his social media support of Hajati and Baha’i rights. An appeals court upheld the sentence, but authorities did not summon him to prison by year’s end. On April 15, the revolutionary court in Isfahan handed down a six-month suspension from the city council.

In January IPW reported authorities arrested four Baha’is in Isfahan stemming from 2017 convictions of “membership in illegal Baha’i organizations with the intention of acting against national security.” Sohrab Naghipoor was sentenced to five years, while Farzad Homayooni, Mohsen Mehregani, and Manouchehr Rahmani each received 20-month sentences. All remained imprisoned at year’s end.

IPW reported in January the Isfahan Court of Appeals sentenced, in separate judgments, nine Baha’is to prison sentences averaging more than five years each. Authorities charged them with “membership in the illegal Baha’i community and disseminating propaganda against the regime by spreading the Baha’i faith in society.”

CHRI and BIC reported that on May 6, a revolutionary court in Bushehr sentenced seven Baha’is – Asadollah Jaberi, Ehteram Sheikhi, Emad Jaberi, Farideh Jaberi, Minoo Riyazati, Farrokh Faramarzi, and Pooneh Nasheri – to three years in prison each for answering questions about their religious beliefs to Muslim guests in their homes and for “membership in an organization against national security.” According to the report, intelligence ministry agents arrested the seven in February 2018.

HRANA reported that on July 6, the revolutionary court in Birjand sentenced nine Baha’i residents to six years each in prison. According to the report, the court authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyer present during the hearing. The nine – Sheida Abedi, Firouz Ahmadi, Khalil Maleki, Simin Mohammadi, Bijan Ahmadi, Maryam Mokhtari, Saghar Mohammadi, Sohrab Malaki, and Bahman Salehi – were convicted of “membership in an illegal…Baha’i group” and “propaganda against the state by promoting Baha’ism.” Authorities also confiscated funds the Baha’i community raised to support the needs of Baha’i residents of Birjand.

IPW reported that in June the revolutionary court in Isfahan sentenced Negin Tadrisi, a Baha’i resident, to a five-year prison term on charges of “collusion and assembly against national security.” According to the report, authorities arrested Tadrisi in October 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day. HRANA and IPW reported that on March 6, judicial authorities sentenced Baha’i Ghazaleh Bagheri Tari to five years in prison for “acting against the security of the country through membership in and administration of Baha’i institutions.” Security forces arrested Bagheri Tari in 2017 during a celebration held in her home marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. According to the report, security forces required each of the participants in the celebration to sign a pledge not to attend Baha’i gatherings.

On June 25, HRANA reported the revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Baha’i resident Sofia Mobini to 10 years in prison for “establishing and organizing an illegal Baha’i group with intentions to threaten the national security.” Authorities arrested Mobini in October 2017 during the celebration of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah and transferred her to Evin Prison, from which she was later released on bail. According to the report, the maximum allowable penalty for such charges under the relevant article of the penal code is no more than five years imprisonment.

In August BIC and international media reported a wave of arrests of Baha’is in various cities. On August 10, MOIS agents arrested Monireh Bavil Saqlaei, Minou Zamanipour, and Gholamhossein Mazloumi in their homes in Tehran and transferred them to Evin Prison. Simultaneously, authorities arrested Sohaila Haqiqat, a Baha’i resident of Shiraz, in her home and took her to an unknown location, as well as Farid Moqaddam in Birjand. On August 3, according to the reports, authorities detained two Baha’is from Karaj: Abolfazl Ansari and Rouhollah Zibaei. Security agents reportedly ransacked the homes of all the detained Baha’is, confiscating their laptops, smartphones, identification cards, bank statements, and other personal effects. Authorities did not cite charges at the time of the arrests. While confirming these reports, the Geneva-based BIC said it was not yet clear which state-run entity was behind the arrests or what the charges were.

According to HRANA and IPW, on January 21, eight MOIS agents arrested and imprisoned a Baha’i woman living in Tehran, Atousa Ahamadayi, following a search of her house and the confiscation of some of her personal belongings, including books, laptops, and religious material. The agents accused Ahamadayi of committing acts against national security. On March 11, IranWire, HRANA, and IPW reported security agents arrested two Baha’i brothers and residents of Tehran, Hamid Nasseri, at his place of business, and Saeed Nasseri, who had gone to the Evin prosecutor’s office to inquire about on his wife’s detention. According to the report, security forces arrested Nasseri’s wife, Afsaneh Emami, on February 2; authorities transferred all three Baha’i family members to Evin Prison.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and arrests of teachers associated with the program. Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation. According to IPW, on October 9, authorities released BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh after she completed a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution. Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a fiveyear sentence. According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while he was visiting his wife, who was imprisoned at Evin Prison. The Tehran revolutionary court sentenced the two on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”

Since the government did not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces, Baha’i activists said this situation often left women facing irreconcilable differences with their partners, including in cases involving domestic violence, without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

On November 2, BIC reported authorities harassed Baha’is around the time of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Baha’u’llah. Authorities raided Baha’i homes and celebrations in Shiraz, arresting at least five Baha’is. In the days leading to the anniversary, perpetrators vandalized a Baha’i cemetery. Authorities sealed five shops belonging to Baha’is because owners had observed the Baha’i holy days.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the most generous rights among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

In May, according to Christian Post, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stated authorities were “summoning” Christian converts from Islam to explain their conversions. In a speech to Shia clerics, Alavi cited “evangelical propaganda” as one of the government’s concerns about the spread of Christianity and local Muslims’ converting to it. According to the Post report, Alavi said the Ministry of Intelligence and the Qom Seminary had dispatched officials to counter “the advocates of Christianity” and to question converts.

According to al-Arabiya English news service, authorities began increasing their surveillance of evangelical Christians in the days preceding Christmas. Christmas celebrations made it easier for authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time, according to Dabrina Tamraz, a religious rights activist. According to reports, at least 109 evangelical Christians were arrested during the year. On February 10, according to CSW, IRGC agents arrested Matthias Haghnejad, the pastor of an underground Christian church, in Rasht following a church service and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to church attendees. Agents also confiscated the pastor’s books and his wife’s phone from their home. On September 23, the Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Haghnejad and eight members of the church to five years in prison after a short trial. Media reported the supreme leader intervened in Pastor Haghnejad’s case to ensure the court upheld the charges against him; he was subsequently transferred to Evin Prison without trial and remained in detention at year’s end.

According to media reports and Article 18, an NGO promoting religious freedom and supporting Iranian Christians, MOIS agents raided the homes of eight converts to Christianity on July 1 in Bushehr, placing them in solitary confinement and denying them access to legal counsel. During the raids, agents reportedly confiscated Bibles, religious literature, wooden crosses, pictures of Christian symbols, laptops, phones, identity cards, bank cards, and other personal belongings.

On August 1, international media and Christian NGOs reported that in late July, the revolutionary court in Karaj sentenced 65-year-old Mahrokh Kanbari, a Christian convert, to one year in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and engaging in “propaganda against the system.” According to the reports, three MOIS agents initially arrested Kanbari at her home on Christmas Eve in 2018, after which she was released on 105 million rials ($2,500) bail. Authorities reportedly directed Kanbari, while released on bail, to be instructed by an Islamic religious leader on how to return to Islam.

According to a September report from Mohabat News, the Bukan Revolutionary Court sentenced Mustafa Rahimi to six months and one day in prison on charges related to selling the Bible at his bookstore. Intelligence agents arrested Rahimi in June and released him on bail, but authorities detained him a few days later and imprisoned him at Bukan Central Prison.

HRANA reported on December 20, Mohammad Moghisseh, Presiding Judge of Branch 28 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, sentenced nine converts to Christianity to five years in prison each for “acting against national security” on October 13. According to HRANA, the trial reportedly took place on September 23; the individuals appealed the sentences. All were reportedly arrested by IRGC intelligence agents.

According to Article 18 and Mohabat News, on October 26, authorities released Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert imprisoned in Rajai Shahr Prison since 2013. On November 12, he reported to Sarbaz to begin the two years of internal exile included in his 2013 sentence for “collusion against national security,” for converting to and practicing Christianity, and related missionary activities.

Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church; his wife, Shamiram Isavi; and their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, continued to appeal prison sentences handed down to them because of their religious activities. According to Article 18 and Christian religious freedom NGO Middle East Concern, the judge postponed a hearing for Victor Bet Tamraz and Isavi on November 13, stating the court was “too crowded” and there was not time to hear their cases.

According to a report by NGOs Article 18, Open Doors International, CSW, and Middle East Concern, at least 17 Christians were in prison on charges related to their religion at year’s end.

NGO reports said the Erfan-e Halgeh group, followers of the spiritual doctrine of Interuniversalism, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Taheri, continued to be subject to frequent arrests, detentions, harassment, and surveillance. According to HRANA, in February authorities arrested and sentenced an Interuniveralism believer and member of the Erfan-e Halgheh group to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security.” In April authorities released Taheri from prison after he served nearly eight years following his arrest in 2011, according to media and NGO reports. According to CHRI, a state media outlet reported authorities granted him a furlough for the Iranian new year, but he faced more time in prison because the appeals court in Tehran upheld a 2018 five-year prison sentence based on the charge of “corruption on earth.” According to social media reports, Taheri remained out of prison on furlough but was banned from leaving the country.

CHRI reported that on May 15, an appeals court upheld the 91-day prison sentences of 18 persons whom authorities arrested on charges of “disrupting public order” while they were peacefully protesting on behalf of Taheri outside Evin Prison in 2015. Sixteen of the defendants in the case are followers of Taheri and the Erfan-e Halgheh group.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics, as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

On January 12, HRANA reported authorities sentenced Shia cleric Seyed Hassan Aghamiri to two years of suspended imprisonment and stripped him of his clerical office as a result of his interviews and speeches in government media. According to Radio Farda, Aghamiri was charged with “undermining clerics’ prestige and insulting sanctities”. NHK English News Service reported in February Aghamiri was very popular among youth because he called for younger generations to “think on their own” by telling them, “God gives you talent. Nothing will stop you. You don’t have any limits.”

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. In January BIC, HRANA, and IPW reported authorities denied the renewal of a business license to Farshid Deimi, a Baha’i resident of Birjand, because of his Baha’i faith. According to the report, on January 5, officials sealed Deimi’s business of 20 years without providing any specific reason for doing so. HRANA also reported in May authorities raided the Kashan home of Heshmatollah Ehsani and confiscated his equipment for producing rosewater because he was a Baha’i business owner. BIC similarly reported in May the intelligence ministry office in Kermanshah summoned Baha’i resident Sasan Ghaghchi for eight hours of interrogation and intimidation related to an inventory of goods authorities had confiscated from his shop and warehouse.

In September IPW reported agents from the state agency The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) forcibly entered the residence of Sharareh Farrokhzadi and Sirous Irannejad, a Baha’i family in the Niavaran region of Tehran, and within seven hours, cleared the residence of all furniture and other belongings and transferred ownership of the house to EIKO. In 2017 a revolutionary court order stated, “Since it has been established that the above-named are…members of the perverse sect of Baha’ism, all their assets may be seized by EIKO.”

HRANA and Iran Wire reported that between June 9 and 15, security forces searched the homes and businesses of nine Baha’i families in Shahin Shahr – Arshad Afshar, Aziz Afshar, Peyman Imani, Mahboubeh Hosseini, Bahram Safaei, Mehran Yazdani, Mesbah Karambakhsh, Sirous Golzar, and Naieem Haghiri – and confiscated their belongings, including cell phones, laptops, tablets, satellite devices, books, photographs, carpets, identification documents, tools, and other business equipment. Judicial authorities summoned the Baha’is, along with three others, to the local intelligence ministry office. According to the report, a group of seven security agents confiscated belongings valued at approximately one billion rials ($23,800). According to HRANA, under pressure from intelligence agents, Haghiri’s employer fired him.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan Provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

International media and the Assyrian International News Agency reported authorities closed a 100-year-old Presbyterian church belonging to the Assyrian community in Tabriz on May 9. According to Article 18, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader, stormed the church. The agents then changed all the locks, tore down a cross from the church tower, ordered the church warden to leave the premises while they installed closed circuit television and other monitoring systems, and barred the congregants from holding services in the building. According to Article 18, a cross was reinstalled on top of the church in July.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. International media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence on August 27 of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to an August 27 report by HRANA, on June 1, security forces arrested Afshari on charges of “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “promoting corruption and prostitution by appearing without a headscarf in public.”

In April authorities arrested three anti-forced-hijab activists, Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani, for their widely shared video via various social media networks on March 8, International Women’s Day, depicting the women handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. According to HRW, on July 31, branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced each of them to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and 10 years for “encouraging and enabling [moral] corruption and prostitution.” Keshavarz received an additional seven-and-a-half years for “insulting the sacred.” On August 16, six UN human rights experts issued a statement calling for the release of the women These included the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences; the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls; the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The experts stated, “We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women’s rights, and to ensure full respect for the rights of women to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and nondiscrimination.”

International media and human rights organizations widely reported the March 11 sentencing of female human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. According to AI, Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing came as a result of her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced-hijab laws.” In June 2018 authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who represented opposition activists, including women prosecuted for removing their mandatory headscarf, and she remained in Evin Prison at year’s end. UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed alarm at the news of Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing. “We are deeply concerned about Ms. Sotoudeh’s conviction and the prison sentence imposed. Her detention and the charges against her appear to relate to her work as a human rights lawyer, especially representing Iranian women human rights defenders arrested for peacefully protesting against laws making the wearing of veils compulsory for women,” the experts said. The Los Angeles Times reported Sahar Khodarayi, also known as “Blue Girl,” was arrested in March for violating the government ban on women entering soccer stadiums by donning a blue wig and an overcoat to watch her favorite soccer team Esteghlal, known for their blue jerseys, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates. She was released on bail and charged with “harming public decency” and “insulting law enforcement agents” for not wearing a hijab. In September, when informed she faced six months in prison, she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in front of a courthouse, dying from her burns a few days later. In October women flooded Azadi Stadium in Tehran to attend a FIFA soccer match chanting “Blue Girl” as they defied the longstanding de facto ban on women attending sporting events in stadiums, where they could mix openly with the opposite sex.

The government continued to suppress public displays it deemed counter to Shia Islamic laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public. In May international media reported the arrest of 30 persons in the city of Gorgan for taking part in a private, mixed-gender yoga class. A local justice department official said the participants wore “inappropriate clothing” and “behaved inappropriately.” According to CHRI, these types of arrests were common but rarely acknowledged publicly by government officials. In March international media reported police in Arak arrested a couple on charges of “undermining Islamic chastity” after an individual posted a video on social media of the young man proposing to the young woman. According to the reports, clerics accused the couple of promoting an illicit relationship and living together without being married. The reports, however, indicated that according to local police, the couple was already legally married.

According to a May 20 CHRI report, government agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of religious minority groups, with the aim of stealing private information in the individuals’ accounts. There were nearly 100 documented accounts that authorities hacked, according to CHRI. CHRI identified accounts of the Gonabadi Sufi community in particular as key targets of the government’s hacking efforts.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsan religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. In September Iran Wire, IHRDC, and international media reported that Minister of Education Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei described a new ministry initiative, Project Mehr, which allowed schools increased authority to deny education to religious minority students. The minister was quoted as saying, “If students say they follow a faith other than the country’s official religions and this is seen as proselytizing, they cannot continue attending school.” He further stated all of the ministry’s provincial and local offices were taking part in the initiative and the human resources necessary for its implementation had been organized.

In June HRANA and IHRDC reported a new directive issued by The Welfare Organization, the country’s social welfare ministry, banning the employment of religious minorities in preschools. The directive states, “Employment of personnel belonging to religious minorities in any capacity in kindergartens is prohibited, except in kindergartens specific to religious minorities.” Director of the Office of Children and Adolescents in the State Welfare Organization Seyed Montazer Shobbar issued the directive on May 27.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. In September HRANA reported at least 22 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs, even though they passed the entrance exam. Officials stated the students had “incomplete files” or their names were not in the registration list. Applicants received a short message stating, “…There is a flaw in your dossier. Please contact the Response Unit of the Appraisal Agency.”

On January 19, media and NGOs reported a wave of expulsions of Baha’is from universities because of their religion. HRANA reported authorities at Azad University in Sama expelled Shirin Bani Nejad, a fifthterm Baha’i studying applied computer science, one month before she was to complete her associate degree. According to the reports, Bani Nejad’s expulsion came after she had paid her full tuition and taken one of her exams. Similarly, according to BIC, authorities expelled Shadi Shogi, a Baha’i student at Najafabad University of Applied Science and Technology, after four terms of study. Officials also expelled Elmira Sayyar Mahdavi, an undergraduate student in photo advertising, from Karaj University of Applied Science and Technology during her third term for being Baha’i. HRANA reported the expulsion of Baha’i Sama Nazifi, a student of architecture at Azad University in Shahriar. According to the reports, Nazifi had received awards and recognition the prior year for her academic achievement. According to Radio Zamaneh, authorities expelled Badi Safajou, a Baha’i student in chemical engineering at Azad University of Sciences and Research in Tehran with a high gradepoint average, during his seventh term. According to the report, supporters of Safajou conducted a poll that showed 81 percent of respondents disapproved of his expulsion. After nine days, security agents ordered the removal of the poll from the university’s Instagram page.

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed them “unclean.”

According to Mazjooban Noor, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and to bar them from university studies because of their affiliation with the Sufi order.

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their faith. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored anti-Christian propaganda to deter the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. A July report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of government-sanctioned discrimination and human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests of community leaders. The report noted the continuing practice of firing Yarsanis from employment after it was discovered they were Yarsani, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the report noted the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, including during military service.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community. The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of books about Christianity already on the market, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsan religion remained banned. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representative Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, the sole Jewish Member of Parliament, stating there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but there was little interference with Jewish religious practices. He ran the Sapir Hospital in Tehran, which played a key role in treating revolutionaries throughout 1978-79 and which continued to have a Hebrew phrase from the Torah over its entrance. Speaking as a government official during a human rights meeting in Geneva on November 9, Morseh-Sedegh, according to government media, said, “Like other Iranians, we religious minorities are free to perform our religious ceremonies.” According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. In an October 2 speech, IRGC Chief General Hossein Salami said Israel would be “wiped off the world’s political geography.” Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “Death to Israel,” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel. Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region. For example, Jam-e Jam daily newspaper in September published an editorial cartoon that suggested Israel’s participation in international sports “was a Jewish plot to crush Palestine.”

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and certain self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and/or charitable associations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity. Even when arrested, perpetrators faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries. According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years. In April BIC reported residents in Shiraz held a town-hall-style meeting against the Baha’i Faith and posted related banners promoting anti-Baha’i sentiment and publications.

Yarsanis outside the country reported widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. On September 25, local media reported several government sources criticized Sufi beliefs in reaction to announced plans to produce a film about the life of Sufi Persian poet Shams Tabrizi. Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi said, “Considering that this [film] will promote the deviant Sufi sect, it is religiously forbidden and should be avoided.” Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani said, “According to Imam Sadeq, the Sufi sect is our enemy and promoting it in any way is not permitted and is religiously forbidden [haram].”

Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

The U.S. government continued to call for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials and reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom. In Iran, blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytization of Muslims are crimes punishable by death. Many Iranians are languishing in jails, including the Great Tehran Penitentiary and Evin Prison, simply for exercising their fundamental freedom to worship, observe, practice, and teach their faiths. Unrecognized religious minorities, including Baha’is and Christian converts, are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment. …Last year, the Iranian government sentenced more than 200 Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms and other harsh punishments after security forces cracked down on Gonabadi Sufis peacefully protesting the detention of one of their fellow faith members. We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.”

During the Secretary of State’s July 18 keynote remarks, he said, “In the Islamic Republic of Iran, authorities ban religious minorities from possessing religious books and they deny them access to education…In May, the Iranian government prohibited religious minorities from working at childcare centers where there are Muslim children. And as we know too well, beatings and imprisonments are common. Iranians who dare stand up for their religious freedom, for their neighbors, face abuse. Last month, the regime threw a city councilman in prison for calling for something so simple as the release of two Baha’is.”

On August 2, in response to media reports of Christian convert Mahrokh Kanbari’s prison sentence, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “I am appalled to hear reports that Iran’s despotic rulers have punished yet another Christian woman for exercising her freedom to worship. Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.”

On October 3, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran delivered a video message in which he stated, “Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other religious minorities are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority today. And believers are routinely fined, flogged, and arrested in Iran. Worse off yet are the members of unrecognized religious minorities like the Baha’is or others in Iran who are met with brutal subjugation including prison, torture, intimidation and even death due to their faith. Today, there are dozens of Baha’is arbitrarily detained in Iran for practicing their faith.”

In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.

According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.

Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR in the north of the country. According to Christian leaders, the Christian population has declined over the past 17 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians. According to Kaka’i (known as Yarsani or Ahl al-Haq in Iran) activists, their distinct ethnic and religious community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members and has long been located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are 70 to 80 Jewish families, according to the Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA). There are possibly more, as some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG MERA, and NGO sources. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR.

According to the International Organization for Migration, as of December, nearly 1.5 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Erbil, Dohuk, and Ninewa Provinces, compared with 1.8 million persons at the end of 2018. Population movements are multidirectional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center in the KRG, 40 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurd (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Law 105 of 1970 prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 year’s imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.

Law 32 of 2016 bans the Baath Party, and also prohibits “takfiri” organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and they require the administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape. Civil status law allows all non-Muslim women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i Faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam. Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other five registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (25 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, organizes a lottery to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel: 3.7 million dinars ($3,300) for Hajj travel by land and 4.8 million dinars ($4,200) for travel by air. In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 48 Syriac and 18 Turkoman language schools. The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and charitable donations. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between members of the same religion while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Immigration Service. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion. IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of religious and ethnic minority communities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit. Usually one of the Council of Representatives (COR) rapporteur (administrative) positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other for a Turkoman. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities: five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR. Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

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

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

Government Practices

More than 600 demonstrators were killed in mass protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. According to news reports, the protesters were mostly young Shia, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement. Human Rights Watch also documented examples of Sunnis in Anbar being detained by ISF for expressing their support of the protests on social media. The reports stated, however, that there was no evidence that members of minority religions taking part in the protests were specifically targeted by security forces suppressing the protests. According to human rights organizations, including HRW, although the PMC and Ministry of Interior forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. In October journalists reported that authorities issued arrest warrants for 130 activists and journalists for covering the demonstrations. The warrants were based on the terrorism law; however, reportedly the real reason for the arrest warrants was their coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Shia-dominant provinces of the country.

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were again implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced abuses by PMF and ISF that included violence and forced displacement by PMF and ISF.

In June MP Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala. Al-Dahlaki stated government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu Al-Khanzir in the province, killing three members of the same family and prompting a wave of displacement from the village.

Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartalla Subdistrict, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, there were 14 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the KRG, compared with 11 in 2018: Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.

Representatives of minority religious communities continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities. Christians again reported abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the 30th Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in Bartalla said they felt threatened by the actions of the Shabak 30th Brigade, such as deploying forces in Christian areas, establishing its headquarters in the Christian sub-district of Bartalla, controlling the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain by establishing check points, forcing merchants to pay bribes, controlling real estate in Christian areas, and other forms of harassment of Christians and Sunni Arabs.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartalla said activities of the 30th Brigade threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias posted pictures of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani on shops in Bartalla, as well as Iraqi militia leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They also stated that the 30th Brigade refused to comply with government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak individuals threatened priests over social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the brigade from the area on social media. Local sources said six Shabak Sunni families left their home in Bashiqa District because the 30th Brigade verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their lands. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported continued verbal harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered Yezidi. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of the Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, there were no reported cases of discrimination against them in the IKR during the year. They continued to state, however, that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by non-Christian religious minorities.

According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their child as Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children receive higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, some Shabak MPs, including Hunain Qado, with the support of some of some Shia elements in the central government, continued to direct the 30th Brigade to harass Christians, drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population, and allow Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf said the nominally Christian but majority Shia Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively continued to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town, but it no longer blocked Christians from returning to the area.

In Ninewa Province, some Shabak MPs in the COR continued to advocate for the provision of land grants in accordance with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF victims who fought ISIS. Throughout the year, according to media and local news reports, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. In 2018 Behnam suspended the grants in a historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. During the year, government construction of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla continued. Christian community leaders continued to express concern that all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

During the year, the Office of the Prime Minister created a committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders to return all Christian properties in Ninewa to their Christian owners. The committee returned tens of houses to their Christian owners and remained active as of the end of year. Reportedly, no similar committee was formed to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian MP Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders worked individually to help Christians return to their homes; he said he managed to return 180 homes during the year.

During the year, the PMF Imam Ali Brigade continued to block the return of the members of the Yezidi Sinjar District Council and the mayor to Sinjar City from their temporary location in Dohuk, notwithstanding an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister provided in 2018 that ordered their return.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report physical abuse and verbal harassment by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated more by territorial disputes rather than religious discrimination.

According to multiple sources, many alleged Sunni ISIS sympathizers or their families whom government forces and militia groups had expelled in 2018 from their homes in several provinces had not returned home by year’s end. Some of these IDPs said PMF groups, including Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Hezballah, continued to block their return.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported between 2,900 and 3,000 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained missing in and outside the country. Approximately 150 Christians also remained missing. According to the KRG MERA, as of October more than 3,500 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity since 2014.

As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by then-KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent approximately $5 million since its inauguration in 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from ISIS. Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs. According to Yezidis activists and officials, the Yezidis were afraid to return to Sinjar because of the continuing Turkish airstrikes targeting the PKK. In November a Turkish airstrike hit the local headquarters of Yezidi PKK fighters in Sinjar, called the People’s Protection Units (also known as YBS), killing or injuring 20 of them.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported the ISF returned to the Sunni Endowment the property of a Sunni mosque in Mosul, confiscated by PMF militia in 2018. The Shia Endowment’s seizure of property owned by the Sunni Endowment continued to create tension with Sunnis in Mosul. One unidentified group placed banners throughout Mosul with the hashtag #OurWaqf [religious endowment] is our Red Line.

At year’s end, the central government had not opened an investigation of the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharaf in 2017. According to Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Sharaf, the government had neglected to address the issue.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. According to estimates, including those cited by several Christian MPs, the monthly number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported four Syriac language schools remained closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.

Some Yezidis and Christians continued to maintain their own militias. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.

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

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula continued to include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660-$1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. The KRG subsidized tuition by approximately 25 percent. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, some schools still did not utilize elements of the universally adopted 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Other than making small changes to the curriculum, observers stated that the Ministry of Education did not have a clear strategy to implement the rest of the religious tolerance curriculum.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies. The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education continued to partner with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes – an effort that continued through year’s end.

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

There were again reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG MERA built four churches and one Christian center during the year.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous two years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian. Although there were no reliable statistics available, minorities stated they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

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

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

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

During the year, the Kaka’i community reported it controlled all of its places of worship. In 2018 Kaka’i leaders had reported that the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad, converting them into mosques.

In September the KRG announced the closure of a restaurant named the “Hitler Restaurant,” located outside Dohuk. The KRG stated that “Nazism and racism would not be tolerated in the autonomous Kurdish region and such actions are against the law.” The KRG’s Department of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs later released a statement calling for expanded laws to punish genocide denial in the KRG.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the protests that began in October, many activists were killed, wounded, and kidnapped reportedly for political reasons by masked individuals and armed groups affiliated with Iran, such as AAH, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. Religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf, called for the protection of minorities in a Friday sermon. Political and religious leader Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Hikma Party, also called for the protection of religious minorities.

According to media, the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement in April appearing to accept children born of ISIS rape into the community; days later, however, the council issued a second statement clarifying it was referring to children born of Yezidi parents and kidnapped by ISIS, but not children born of rape.

Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade, reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment. According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In an August 6 interview with the National Review on the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil said, “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction…Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”

Based on Iraqi media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place two consecutive years in a row. The KRG marked the genocide’s anniversary with a commemoration ceremony in Dohuk with participants including then-IKR president Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Yezidi leader Mir Hazim Beg, KRG ministers, diplomats, and genocide survivors. The same day, the Ninewa Provincial Council also commemorated the anniversary of the genocide in Sinjar. The IKR parliament passed a resolution recognizing August 3 as Yezidi Genocide Remembrance Day.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

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

During the year, with the stated purpose “To support the faithful and encourage them to stay in their homeland,” the Syriac Catholic Church re-established a diocese for the Kurdistan region. To mark the occasion, the Syriac Catholic patriarch celebrated Mass at the Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil on August 24.

In Baghdad on February 18, the University of London’s SOAS Jewish Music Institute featured Baghdadi folk songs and lullabies with British-born musician Carol Isaacs, of Iraqi Jewish origin. Titled “The Wolf of Baghdad,” the presentation was a personal familial audiovisual journey, an effort to revive Iraq’s vanishing Jewish community that formed one-third of Baghdad’s population in the 1940s. In December members of the Jewish community from the IKR and abroad gathered in the town of Al-Qosh in the Nineveh Plains to celebrate Hanukkah.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then-prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of minorities into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support and other protection interventions, education, and livelihoods.

On July 18, the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two militia figures pursuant to Executive Order 13818: Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the PMF 50th Brigade, and Waad Qado, the leader of the 30th Brigade, along with two former Iraqi governors, Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan and Ahmed al-Jabouri. The OFAC press release stated, “Many of the corruption- and abuse-related actions committed by these sanctioned individuals occurred in areas where persecuted religious communities are struggling to recover from the horrors inflicted on them by ISIS. Therefore, today’s sanctions demonstrate solidarity with all Iraqis who oppose corruption and human rights abuse undertaken by public officials and underscore the Administration’s commitment to support the recovery of persecuted religious communities in Iraq.”

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.

Working with the local business sector, the U.S. Agency for International Development organized the Ninewa Investment Forum on December 4-5 in Erbil to connect local businesses with investors from around the world, including the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The event featured panel discussions that raised awareness of the business opportunities and challenges that exist in Ninewa, including among religious minority communities.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions. Media reported on June 21 that the Hadath municipality prohibited Christian residents from renting or selling property to Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments in largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) summoned a senior member of the Jewish Community Council for interrogation concerning the identities of visitors to synagogues and cemeteries during the summer months. Authorities banned a Brazilian metal band, Sepultura, from entering the country after its members were accused of being “devil worshippers,” according to concert organizers. Organizers also said the band was denied entry due to cultural perceptions that metal music is “satanic” and “anti-religion.” Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. While then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan and several other political figures vocalized support for optional civil marriage, at least 30 applications for interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration in the face of criticism, particularly by religious leaders.

Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over some territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia Muslim.

Organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled a planned August 9 concert by internationally known indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed.” Political and religious figures, as well as many private citizens, criticized the band for a four-year-old post on Facebook of a controversial image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. The Maronite Eparchy of Byblos accused the group of “offend[ing] religious and human values and insult[ing] Christian beliefs,” while figures ranging from members of parliament (MPs) to private citizens threatened violence. In a December incident, during months of political protests reportedly driven by the country’s economic and political problems, hundreds of Shia protesters demonstrated in Beirut after a video produced by a Sunni individual appeared on social media insulting Shia political and religious figures. A prominent Sunni imam said the posting did not represent the views of the Sunni community. The author of the video later apologized for posting it. The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism, including dumping of trash and rubble, at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon. Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. On July 30, an interreligious spiritual summit convened in Beirut at the House of Druze Communities; senior religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities attended the event.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador met on March 7 with a group of religious leaders in Tripoli to discuss relations among the different communities. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith exchange programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations estimate the total population includes 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for nearly 70 years.

Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 67.6 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (31.9 percent Sunni, 31 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Statistics Lebanon estimates 32.4 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox. Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists), Roman (Latin) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).

According to Statistics Lebanon, 4.52 percent of the population is Druze, concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut. There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus. The Jewish Community Council, which represents the country’s Jewish community, estimates 70 Jews reside in the country.

UNHCR estimates there are 1.3 million refugees from Syria in the country, mainly Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates there are between 250,000 and 280,000 Palestinians living in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas. They are mostly the descendants of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s and are mostly Sunni Muslims but also include Christians.

UNHCR states there are approximately 14,000 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in the country. Refugees and foreign migrants from Iraq include mostly Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Chaldeans. There were also Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 10,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country. According to the same NGO, the majority of Iraqi Christian refugees are not registered with UNHCR and so are not included in their count.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group. The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.

By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change. The newly joined religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI’s) Personal Status Directorate. The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.

Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed. Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials.

The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.” It does not provide a definition of what this entails.

The penal code criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years for either of these offenses.

By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition. To do so, a religious group must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accord with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution. Alternatively, a nonrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by seeking affiliation with another recognized religious group. In doing so, the nonrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies. This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.

There are 18 officially recognized religious groups. According to the government, these include five Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic), and Jews. Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, several Protestant groups, and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government recognition, which also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters. By law, the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law. While the religious courts and religious laws are legally bound to comply with the provisions of the constitution, the Court of Cassation, the highest civil court in the judicial system, has very limited oversight of religious court proceedings and decisions.

There are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce. The government recognizes civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage. While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts often require the nonbelonging partner to pledge to raise his or her children in the religion of the partner and/or to relinquish certain rights, such as inheritance or custody claims, in the case of divorce.

Nonrecognized religious groups may own property, assemble for worship, and perform religious rites freely. They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues. Given agreements in the country’s confessional system that designate percentages of senior government positions, and in some cases specific positions, for the recognized religious confessions, members of nonrecognized groups have no opportunity to occupy certain government positions, including cabinet, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.

The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations and representing those churches to the government.

The law allows censorship of religious publications under a number of conditions, including if the government deems the material incites sectarian discord or threatens national security.

According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may operate their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security. The government permits but does not require religious education in public schools. Both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.

The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general. It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the major religious groups. This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country.) According to the pact, the president shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the prime minister shall be a Sunni Muslim. This proportional distribution also applies to high-level positions in the civil service, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government. Parliament is elected on the basis of “equality between Christians and Muslims,” and cabinet positions must be allocated on the same basis. Druze and sometimes Alawites are included in this allocation with the Muslim communities.

The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding agreement.

The Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates elections based on the principle of proportional representation between Muslims and Christians in parliament, but resetting the Christian and Muslim allocation at 50 percent each. The agreement also amended powers of the Maronite Christian presidency and Sunni Muslim prime minister, reducing constitutional powers of the president and increasing those of the prime minister, while also subjecting the designation of the prime minister to binding consultations with parliament and the designations of all ministers to a parliamentary vote of confidence.

In addition, the Taif Agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces. Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the ISF and the Directorate of General Security (DGS) are Sunni and Shia, respectively. Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well. While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and any change or accommodation generally must be mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.

The Taif Agreement mandates a cabinet with seats allocated equally between Christians and Muslims (which includes Druze and sometimes Alawites)

The Taif Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation among members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession.

By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql, its most senior religious leader. The government’s Council of Ministers must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries. The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges. By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.

The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month. Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel. If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.

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

Government Practices

On June 21, there were media reports that the Hadath municipality, on the outskirts of Beirut’s southern suburbs, prohibited Christians from renting or selling property to Muslims, and local residents and politicians raised concerns of discrimination based on religion. Head of the municipality George Aoun defended his decision and said the ban was instituted in 2010, has been enforced since then, and was intended to preserve the composition of each village or town. He added the decision encouraged coexistence. Aoun said that before the civil war, Hadath was purely Christian but that since then, so many Muslims had moved to the community that they made up 60 percent of its residents. Then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan said she considered this ban to be unconstitutional and promoted sectarian division.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) continued to report that, since 2016, some municipal governments in largely Christian cities forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them to other locations in the country. The HRW report stated religious affiliation was among several reasons for the evictions. Most of those interviewed by HRW said their eviction were due, in part, to their religious identity. According to UNHCR, the municipalities identified as being involved in forcibly evicting and expelling Syrian refugees were predominantly Christian. While many of those interviewed by NGOs continued to state that their eviction was due in part to their religious identities, monthly community tension reports prepared jointly by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and UNHCR along with NGO and implementing partners using population survey data from UNDP did not identify religious discrimination as the key driver of tension between refugees and host communities. NGOs and international organizations, including UNDP, UNHCR, and other UN agencies, also reported that perceptions of competition for jobs, resources, and land were the predominant factors driving refugee evictions, along with security concerns and the country’s history with Syria.

According to the ISF and the Jewish Community Council, the ISF Information Branch summoned senior Jewish Community Council member Semaria Bihar on September 18 for questioning concerning the number of visitors to Beirut’s synagogues and cemeteries over the summer months. Authorities released Bihar the same day but kept his phone overnight.

The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion. For the fourth year in a row, however, there was no judicial action on the lawsuit filed in 2015 by MP Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian, who was accused of “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he made about Christianity.

On October 31, press reported DGS censored a caricature of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published in the French weekly Courrier International. DGS covered the caricature with a sticker before allowing the publication to enter Lebanon. DGS reviewed all films and plays, and there were complaints by civil society activists that DGS’s decision-making process lacked transparency and that the opinions of religious institutions and political groups influenced it.

On April 19, a promoter of rock concerts in the country issued a press release stating authorities banned a Brazilian metal band, Sepultura, from entering the country after members of the band were accused of being “devil worshippers.” Organizers, who were only informed of the ban and not allowed to see the government’s official ban order circulated within the government, provided a media statement saying the band was denied entry due to cultural perceptions that metal music is “satanic” and “anti-religion.”

According to local NGOs, some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ said they registered as evangelical Protestant.

The government again failed to take action to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israeli Communal Council (the group’s officially recognized name). Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites; customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script given a national ban on trade of Israeli goods.

Non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticisms made following May 2018 parliamentary elections that the government had made little progress toward the Taif Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.” Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, said the fact that the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament, constituted government discrimination. The Syriac League continued to call for more representation for non-Maronite and non-Greek Orthodox Christians in cabinet positions, parliament, and high-level civil service positions, typically held by members of the larger Christian religious groups. During protests that sprang up across the country beginning on October 17, some of the protesters, religious figures and politicians began calling for an electoral law that was not based on religious affiliation.

Similarly, some women’s rights advocates among protesters highlighted the absence of a civil code governing issues of personal status and objected to the country’s reliance on gender-discriminatory family codes adjudicated solely by religious courts.

Members of all confessions may serve in the military, intelligence, and security services. While most confessions had members serving in these capacities, some groups did not do so, usually because of their small number of adherents in the country. Members of the largest recognized confessions dominated the ranks of senior positions.

During Ramadan, the prime minister designated an official delegation, including a medical team that accompanied pilgrims going on Hajj to assist them in administrative and medical matters.

During the July 16-18 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, then foreign Minister Gebran Bassil praised the country’s confessional system as a stronghold of religious freedom, saying “no minority feels unsafe or threatened by the majority, and no confession fears violation of rights.” He said his presence at the ministerial was a “manifestation of his deepest conviction and the attachment of his country to religious freedom, to protect minorities, and to preserve diversity in the Middle East.”

Speaking on the issue of civil marriage, then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan stated during a February 15 television interview that she “will try to open the door to a serious and deep dialogue on this issue with all religious and other authorities … until civil marriage is recognized.” Al-Hassan’s remarks elicited support from some political figures including Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party. Her remarks drew strong opposition from religious figures. According to NGO representatives, civil society figures cautiously engaged both Christian and Muslim leaders throughout the year to assuage fears that civil marriage would pose a threat to religious leaders’ ability to administer their own confessional affairs. During the year, the MOI took no action on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the ministry since 2013.

On December 15, Beirut Governor Ziad Chehib, with the permission of the Beirut Municipality and Department of Antiquities, ordered the removal of a sculpture in downtown Beirut because of the statue’s resemblance to the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism. Created by a British artist and installed in 2018, the sculpture was formed of three large metal squares interlocked to form a cube shape, and from above appeared as the Star of David. The gallery that organized the installation said the piece had nothing to do with Israel, but it was nonetheless removed to “avoid any clashes.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On July 30, organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled a planned August 9 concert by internationally recognized indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed.” Mashrou’ Leila publicly supported LGBTQ rights and regularly sang about subjects such as sectarianism and corruption. Political and religious figures, as well as many private citizens, strongly criticized the band for a four-year-old post on Facebook of a controversial image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. The Maronite Eparchy of Byblos accused the group of “offend[ing] religious and human values and insult[ing] Christian beliefs,” while figures ranging from MPs to private citizens threatened violence. Following a six-hour interrogation by security officials, band members met with religious authorities in an attempt to resolve the issue, and the band removed the contested image from social media. Local and international human rights activists, as well as many members of the public, characterized criticisms of the band as an assault on freedom of speech and artistic creativity, calling on the public to play the group’s music in protest.

In December, during months of protests driven by the country’s economic and political problems, hundreds of Shia protesters in one incident demonstrated in Beirut, throwing rocks and fireworks at police and soldiers, after a video appeared on social media insulting Shia political and religious figures, including the speaker of the parliament and the leader of Hizballah. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. The video showed a Sunni individual from the northern city of Tripoli, Samer al-Saydawi, cursing Shia, their leaders, and their religious figures. A prominent Sunni imam criticized the posting and said it did not represent the views of the Sunni community. Saydawi, who lived abroad at year’s end, later released a second video, apologizing for his previous message.

On May 16, the country’s top political and religious leaders, as well as foreign dignitaries and representatives, attended the state funeral of Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. Sunni Grand Mufti Abdel Latif Deryan described Sfeir as “a role model for moderation, openness, wisdom, dialogue, love, and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”

On January 15, Rabbi Alex Goldberg met with Tripoli Mufti Malek Chaar. Mufti Chaar issued a statement afterwards saying the meeting resulted from an appointment request made by the Association of Dialogue for Reconciliation and Life. Mufti Chaar received a foreign delegation from 12 countries comprising 27 persons from different religions.

Following issuance of a permit to the Jewish Community Council to restore the Sidon cemetery in 2018 after acts of vandalism, the council did not begin any restoration during the year. The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and was unresolved by year’s end. Once again, the Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism, including dumping of trash and rubble, at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon. Despite the council submitting a formal complaint to the municipality of Beirut, no substantial progress was made regarding preventing construction debris and other garbage from being dumped in the Beirut Jewish cemetery.

Religious leaders stated relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable, demonstrated by continued participation by Christian and Muslim religious leaders in interfaith dialogues. On July 30, an interreligious spiritual summit sponsored by Sheikh al-Aql Naim Hassan convened in Beirut at the House of Druze Communities. Senior religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities attended. The religious leaders gathered at the summit in an attempt to restore calm following an increase in intra-Druze tensions. Summit participants issued a joint communique stating national unity represented an indispensable guarantee to build a better future for the country, and coexistence among the different components of the population must be preserved from any threat connected to the resurgence of sectarian impulses and conflicts.

At year’s end, approximately 70 percent of students attended private schools, which despite many having ties to confessional groups, often were open to children of other religious groups as well.

Local pluralism and religious freedom NGO Adyan Foundation initiated a project funded by the government of Denmark, titled “Women, Religions and Human Rights in Lebanon.” The project’s stated long-term objective was to end discrimination against women through reforms that would amend the country’s laws by altering or ending the role played by religious communities and their courts over personal status issues.

A November report published by Arab Barometer, an international research consortium, showed personal piety in the country declined dramatically in the past decade: only 24 percent of the population described themselves as religious compared with 44 percent in 2010. In addition, those attending religious services weekly dropped by 21 percentage points from 2007 to 2018; the country’s population also experienced a 28 percentage point drop in those reading or listening to religious texts. Despite these reported changes, intolerance toward members of other religions rose: 20 percent of those polled stated they would not like neighbors of a different religious group, an increase of 16 percentage points since 2010. Support for religion in the public sphere increased, with Shia and Druze being somewhat more likely than Christians to favor incorporating religion into politics; however, 71 percent said religious leaders should not influence voters, a 20-point decline since 2010.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss their views, including on relations with other religious groups, and to promote religious tolerance.

The Ambassador met on multiple occasions with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism. Embassy officers often met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages.

The Ambassador met on March 7 with a group of religious leaders in Tripoli, including the Mufti of Tripoli Sheikh Dr. Malek Chaar, Greek Orthodox Bishop of Tripoli Afram Keryakos, and Maronite Bishop of Tripoli Georges Abou Jaoude, to discuss relationships among the different communities. The group praised U.S. assistance in the region and highlighted the positive impact that their close working relationship had on relationships among the different religious communities in Tripoli.

In March embassy officials met with Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji to explore opportunities for enhanced engagement and to identify steps to improve the eparchy’s communication and cooperation in provision of assistance from international agencies, including UNHCR. This was a continuation of 2018 meetings among Iraqi Christian refugees, Chaldean Church officials, and UNHCR, which stemmed from complaints of religious-based discrimination in the provision of services to refugees that were assessed by the U.S. Agency for International Development as unfounded. In May following embassy outreach to minority refugee communities, the World Food Program (WFP) added a significant number of beneficiaries to its U.S.-funded food program. More than 2,300 Iraqi and other non-Syrian refugee households comprising approximately 8,900 refugees (primarily religious minorities) began receiving $27 per month through a card that could be used to purchase food at WFP-approved grocery stores.

The embassy continued for the ninth consecutive year to fund and manage a scholarship program at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University that brings together religiously and geographically diverse students to increase their understanding of religious diversity. Each scholarship includes full tuition, up to one year of intensive English courses, housing or transportation expenses, a monthly stipend, books, medical insurance, and a laptop. Nearly 140 religiously diverse students from 70 high schools, including 20 percent from UNRWA schools, participated during the year. Students from a variety of religious backgrounds also collaborated to develop and lead community service projects serving geographically and religiously diverse communities across the country as part of a project that directly served more than 4,000 high school students since 2007.

For the ninth consecutive year, the embassy selected five students between the ages of 18 and 25 to participate in a five-week visitor exchange program at Temple University, where they learned about religious pluralism in the United States, visited places of worship, and participated in related cultural activities.

Pakistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 29 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals. Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets stated that four Christians were tortured or mistreated by police in August and September, resulting in the death of one of them. On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 judgment overturning the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7, after death threats made it unsafe for her to remain. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had spent 18 years in prison for blasphemy. On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to state they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies used to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of the perpetrators, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. In some cases of alleged kidnapping and forced conversions of young religious minority women, however, government authorities intervened to protect the alleged victim and ascertain her will. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, along with a visa-free transit corridor for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, which resulted in very few religious minority applicants competing and qualifying for private and civil service employment.

Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. On April 12, a bomb attack in Quetta, Balochistan, targeting Shia Hazaras killed 21 persons, including eight Hazaras. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Islamic State (ISIS) each claimed responsibility. On May 7, terrorists affiliated with Hizbul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP, attacked police stationed outside the Data Darbar Shrine in Lahore, the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia, killing nine and wounding 24. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays, and no religious festival was disrupted by violence for the second year in a row.

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was an increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There also continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this responsibility being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.

Senior Department of State officials , including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, Charge d’Affaires, Consuls General, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, the minister for religious affairs, and officials from these ministries to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.

On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 210.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim), Hindus, Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, among others, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalash, Kihals, and Jains.

Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population and Shia, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.

According to the 2017 provisional census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.59 percent Christian, 0.22 percent Ahmadi, and 0.32 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution.

The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, or carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine. On February 7, the government of Azad Kashmir amended its interim constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim.

The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.

The military courts’ mandate to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges expired on March 31. The government may also use the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs), established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.

The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.

The constitution mandates the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.

The constitution states no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.

By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the suprasectarian Jamaat-i-Islami. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of five wafaqs.

The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights if they so choose. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codified legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion or by fraud.” The act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. In 2018, the Sindh provincial government further enacted amendments to its 2016 legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The 2018 Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized. Under such judgments, children born to a non-Muslim couple could be considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children would be for the husband also to convert to Islam. Under such judgments, the children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group could be considered illegitimate, and the government could take custody of the children. The law does not speak on any of these practices.

The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution, but does not have arrest authority. A 2010 constitutional amendment devolved responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.

According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal and provincial levels of government.

The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.

The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.

The constitution requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires that elected Muslim officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam.

The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the president and prime minister be Muslims.

Government Practices

According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, and at least 29 under sentence of death, compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by NGOs, authorities registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals during the year. Courts issued two new death sentences and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of one person for blasphemy, and a lower court acquitted another person charged with blasphemy during the year. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Of the 84 imprisoned for blasphemy, 31 were Christian, 16 Ahmadi, and 5 Hindu. According to civil society sources, as of the end of the year, 29 individuals remained on death row for alleged blasphemy. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses. NGOs continued to report lower courts often did not adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.

Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets reported four cases of police mistreatment of and discrimination against Christians in August and September, including one case that resulted in the death of Amir Masih in September. According to multiple media reports, police in Lahore arrested Masih after he was accused of theft and held him for four days before notifying his family to pick him up. Closed-circuit television showed policemen bringing Masih out of the hospital in a wheelchair, and he died a few hours later. Media reported that a post-mortem examination found signs of torture, including burn marks and broken ribs. According to some media reports, Masih’s brother said that one of the policemen made derogatory comments about Christians, including, “I know how to deal with these infidels.” The Punjab Inspector General of Police removed the investigation officer and arrested five others, but there were no further reports of investigation or prosecution of the officers involved. Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.

On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7; numerous sources stated that death threats from anti-blasphemy political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and others made it unsafe for her and her family to remain. On November 13, an ATC indicted TLP leader Khadim Hussein Rizvi, TLP’s religious patron-in-chief Pir Afzal Qadri, and 24 others with sedition and terrorism. The formal charges came approximately one year after police took Rizvi and Qadri into custody for their roles in leading nationwide protests and calling for the assassination of public officials at the time of Bibi’s acquittal. On May 15, the Lahore High Court ordered Rizvi and Qadri to be released on bail for health reasons, and they remained free at year’s end.

On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. He was simultaneously sentenced to life imprisonment for defiling the Quran and 10 years’ imprisonment for outraging the feelings of Muslims. Hafeez was arrested in 2013 after members of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami at Bahauddin Zakariya University complained of his allegedly liberal and skeptical views, and one of his first lawyers was killed in 2014 for defending him against the blasphemy charges.

On September 12, a special cybercrimes court sentenced Sajid Ali, a Muslim, to five years imprisonment for blasphemy on social media. Authorities charged Ali with posting “sacrilegious, blasphemous, and derogatory material against Hazrat Umar” (a senior companion of the Prophet Muhammad) on Facebook in 2017 under both the blasphemy law and PECA. His conviction was the first time an individual was punished for insulting the companions of the Prophet Muhammad online.

On May 27, police in Mirpurkhas, Sindh Province, arrested Hindu veterinarian Ramesh Kumar after a prayer leader from a local mosque said he had desecrated the Quran by wrapping medicines in pages of Quranic verse. As word spread, a mob burned Kumar’s clinic and attacked the police station. In addition to arresting Kumar, which media reported police said was for his own protection, local police arrested six suspects on charges of rioting and attempted murder. Police also provided security at Kumar’s residence. Media reports quoted a senior district police official who described the rioters as “miscreants” who neither loved Islam nor their neighbors.

On September 15, police in Ghotki, Sindh Province, arrested Hindu teacher Notan Lal after a student accused him of blasphemy in an Islamic studies class. Local religious leaders led a mob that vandalized a Hindu temple and looted other Hindu-owned properties. Police, supported by paramilitary officers, dispersed the crowd and moved Lal to an undisclosed location for his own protection, according to a senior police official. After the riots, the Ministry of Human Rights set up an investigative committee, which included Hindu lawmakers and human rights activists of diverse faiths. The committee found the riots were premeditated, with political motivations. The committee further recommended a formal judicial inquiry as to whether the blasphemy law had been misused. At the end of the year, no action on this recommendation was reported. Some civil society members held a peace rally to express solidarity with the Hindu community.

During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others of their charges after the accused had spent years in prison. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Wajih-ul-Hassan, a Muslim, for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent 18 years in prison. The Supreme Court’s judgment criticized the lower court’s conviction of ul-Hassan based on lack of witnesses, weak evidence, and an extrajudicial confession. On January 15, the Kasur Sessions Court in Punjab Province acquitted Christian laborer Pervaiz Masih of blasphemy after a three-year trial.

In May the Lahore High Court upheld the death sentences of three of the five men convicted of murder in the 2014 killings of Christian couple Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, but it overturned the convictions of two others.

According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Sawan Masih; and Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prisons and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution. The Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) stated it believed the widespread protests following the Supreme Court’s 2018 overturning of Asia Bibi’s conviction may have increased many judges’ reluctance.

On March 28, an ATC sentenced two additional individuals to life in prison for their role in the 2017 killing of university student Mashal Khan for alleged blasphemy. The sentencing came after the primary shooter was sentenced to death and five others were sentenced to life in prison in 2018. One of the men, Arif Khan, a local government official affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) (PTI) party, was seen in two videos participating in the killing of Mashal and congratulating another accused individual for committing the killing.

Authorities charged 11 Ahmadis in connection with practicing their faith during the year, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders. Among these, six Ahmadis were arrested and charged with blasphemy, although three were released. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders stated that due to arrests and criminal charges for offering a sacrifice at Eid al-Adha in previous years, Ahmadis carried out the ritual sacrifice in private to avoid exposure and arrest. On March 18, a judge released elderly Ahmadi bookseller Abdul Shakoor from prison after reducing his sentence to the three years he had already served. Shakoor had been convicted of propagating the Ahmadiyya faith and “inciting hatred.”

According to law enforcement reports, there was at least one instance in which the government intervened in a case of intercommunal violence. According to those reports, a Shia procession near Lahore deviated from its approved route during the commemoration of Ashura, sparking a violent response from a Sunni group. There were no deaths but multiple injuries from gunshots and thrown stones. Police called in support from Ranger forces when they could not put down the clash on their own.

Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On March 26, police in Saddar, Punjab Province, called on a district peace committee and a local cleric to help them interrupt a mob beating seven individuals accused of blasphemy. According to media reports, the attackers released the accused only following promises that police would arrest them. In these instances, police intervened to save the lives of the accused, stop violence, and mitigate damage to property, but they also arrested and charged the accused under the blasphemy law and did not always charge those responsible for the violence. In another case, however, police in Yousafabad, Punjab Province on October 28 intervened and convinced clerics to drop charges of blasphemy against a Christian sanitation worker who found a bag containing pages from the Bible and the Quran. When he brought the pages to a Muslim shopkeeper to ascertain how to best handle the pages, the shopkeeper reportedly accused him of blasphemy and took him to a mosque, where the imam called for attacks on Christian homes.

In March three assailants killed Hindu laborer Ghansam Bheel in a village near Umerkot, Sindh Province. The killing sparked protests by Hindus in many Sindh towns against alleged police apathy. According to some reports, police began an investigation only after senior government officials intervened.

More than 40 Christian men remained in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, accused of lynching two Muslim men after terrorist suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches in March 2015. An ATC indicted the men on charges of murder and terrorism in 2016, and the trial had not concluded at year’s end. Civil society sources reported that the judge and legal counsel for the families of the two men killed and the imprisoned men were seeking a way to resolve the cases through conciliation and compensation. NGO Pakistan Interfaith League (PIL) stated the move toward conciliation and compensation was a positive development but expressed concern that the families of the imprisoned men had no way to pay because their primary income earners had been imprisoned for years.

Historically, Hindu and Sikh leaders had noted the legal uncertainty surrounding the process of registering marriages for their communities created difficulties for Hindu and Sikh women in obtaining inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. Observers stated the enactment of the 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and its 2018 amendments, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act, and the 2018 Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act addressed many of the problems and also codified the right to divorce. Members of the Sindh Provincial Assembly stated that the Sindh cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December.

On August 14, Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly stated, “Those in Pakistan who convert people to Islam by force…are going against Islam.” On November 21, the Senate established a Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions. The committee included the minister of religious affairs and interfaith harmony, the minister of human rights, and several Christian and Hindu senators. Religious minorities, however, said they remained concerned that government action to address coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam was inadequate. Minority rights activists in Sindh cited the province’s failure to enact legislation against forced conversions as an example of the government’s retreating in the face of pressure from religious parties. Sindh Assembly member Nand Kumar Goklani introduced a bill against forced conversions on April 5. The draft updated a similar bill approved by the Sindh Assembly in 2016 that the governor refused to sign, reportedly under pressure from extremist groups. On October 23, the Sindh Assembly voted against the new bill after Islamist parties and religious leaders lobbied against it.

The family of Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Christian girl, filed a case saying Abdul Jabar, a Muslim man, kidnapped her from her Karachi home, raped her, and forcibly converted her to Islam on October 10. According to the family’s lawyer, Huma’s family had not seen her since she was taken, and she did not appear at a court hearing on November 11. Sindh Province law prohibits the marriage of minors under 18 years old.

There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. On May 31, a Hindu woman testified in court that men kidnapped her from Tando Bago, Sindh, took her to another village, assaulted her, and forced her to convert to Islam. Police recovered the woman within a few days of her husband’s reporting the kidnapping. The court ruled the woman should return to her family but did not order any legal action against the suspects. On September 4, Punjab police removed a 15-year-old Christian girl from a madrassah and took her to a women’s shelter in Sheikhupura after her parents filed an abduction complaint with the Punjab Ministry of Human Rights and Minority Affairs. According to civil society and media reports, the girl’s parents became alarmed when she did not come home from school and learned the school principal had taken her to a madrassah. After visiting three madrassahs, the parents found their daughter, but they were barred from bringing her home. The girl’s principal reportedly told her she had automatically become a Muslim by reading Arabic and offered to financially compensate her parents if they would convert to Islam.

Other cases of alleged forced conversions received high-level government intervention after minority communities lobbied for assistance. On March 20, in a case that received wide media coverage, Hindu sisters Reena and Raveena Meghwar disappeared from their home in Ghotki District, Sindh. Their father and brother said they had been abducted, and that they were underage. Local police did not file a case immediately and reportedly dismissed the family’s claims. On March 21, a video of the sisters, in which they claimed they were over 18 and had converted to Islam voluntarily and married two Muslim men, spread rapidly on social media. The sisters were taken from Sindh to Punjab Province to marry at the office of Sunni Tehreek, a religious political party. On March 24, Prime Minister Khan ordered authorities in Sindh and Punjab to investigate, and on March 25, police arrested 12 individuals, including the marriage officiant and witnesses. Also on March 25, the sisters filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court seeking protection from their family. The court ordered the government to provide protection for the women and formed a commission to investigate the case. The commission included the minister for human rights, the chair of Human Rights Commission Pakistan, the chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women, and a prominent Muslim cleric, but no minority religious members. On April 11, the court ruled that the sisters were of marriageable age and had not been forced to convert to Islam. There was no clear-cut evidence as to the age of the sisters at the time of marriage and whether they had willingly converted and gone to Punjab to marry, but in the aftermath of the incident, Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly proposed bills to enhance punishment for those involved in forced conversions and to make child marriage a criminal offense.

On August 28, a community dispute arose when a 19-year-old Sikh woman married a Muslim man in Nankana Sahib, Punjab. According to media reports, Jagjit Kaur, a Sikh and the daughter of a prominent Sikh religious leader, converted to Islam to marry for love, but her family accused the Muslim family of kidnapping and forcibly converting her. Kaur’s family filed charges and threatened to immolate themselves if police did not bring her home. Kaur stated in court that she was of legal age to marry and converted of her own free will, and a judge ordered her to remain in a women’s shelter while the Punjab government met with representatives of each side. On September 3, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar met with representatives of each family and stated the situation had been amicably resolved, although Sikh sources stated Kaur remained in the women’s shelter at year’s end. Media reports quoted Sarwar as stating he would not negotiate a resolution in any case he suspected to be kidnapping and forced conversion, which, he said, were unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

The Ministry of Interior maintained multi-tier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On March 5, the government added UN-listed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD, a political front of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyiba) and its charity wing Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) to the list of organizations proscribed under Schedule 1. On May 10, the government added seven JuD and two FIF affiliate organizations to the Schedule 1 list. Punjab police arrested JuD founder Hafiz Saeed July 17 on terrorism finance charges, and at year’s end he faced three separate terrorism-finance-related prosecutions. Other groups, including LeJ, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), remained on Schedule 1, but groups that sources stated were widely believed to be affiliated with them continued to operate to various degrees.

According to the Ahmadiyya community spokesperson, on October 25 Assistant Commissioner of Hasilpur, Punjab, Mohammad Tayyab, led a group of police officers and other officials, who tore down part of an Ahmadi mosque. Throughout the year, police closed down two Ahmadi prayer centers in Rawalpindi, citing law and order concerns, and another prayer center in Lahore. In June police in Sheikhapura District, Punjab Province, denied Ahmadis access to a mosque they used for prayer and forced them to sign a declaration they would no longer pray in the mosque. In September police also prevented Ahmadis from praying in a private home in Gujranwala, Punjab Province, and in a newly-built prayer center in Nankana, also in Punjab. In all these cases, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders cited complaints from Muslim clerics as prompting police to prevent their worship. Civil society members also reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set on fire Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years.

According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Muhammad. On March 28, the Lahore High Court directed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the PTA to remove or block proscribed religious material and “inauthentic” e-copies of the Quran available in app stores and other online sources; a petitioner complained to courts that Ahmadi groups had posted Ahmadi publications of the Quran online.

While the law required a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint could be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated would help contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days in order for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.

According to religious organizations and human rights groups, while the majority of those accused and convicted of blasphemy were Muslim, religious minorities continued to be disproportionately accused of blasphemy relative to their small percentage of the population. According to data compiled from multiple sources, since 2001 there were 28 convictions of non-Ahmadi Muslims, 16 convictions of Christians, and four convictions of Ahmadi Muslims.

Community leaders continued to report the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such. In 2018 the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the IHC judgment. According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of prophethood,” something which they stated was against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections.

Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered part of the Hindu religion.

Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, as those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961. Some community representatives said Christians faced difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars – usually church authorities. Parliament, church leaders, and advocates debated the text of a new draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, as the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of the National Assembly and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but there was no agreement among different church denominations and between church leaders and NGO representatives on elements of the text pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage at year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.

The government continued to fund and facilitate Hajj travel for most Muslims, but Ahmadis were unable to participate in the Hajj, community leaders said, because of passport application requirements to list religious affiliation and denounce the founder of the Ahmadiyya community.

The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was located in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel. In January the federal government allowed Jewish citizen Fishel Benkhald to travel to Israel after he appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for special permission.

According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Some religious minority leaders stated the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.

The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so as non-Muslims, even though they self-identify as Muslim.

The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior may grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas are valid for one year and allow one re-entry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two re-entries per year, excluding from India. Approximately 50 missionaries affiliated with one Christian organization, some of whom had been working in the country for many years, were denied visa renewals after a long appeal period.

In 2018 the Federal Cabinet approved a bill with amendments to PECA to bring online blasphemy and pornographic material within its ambit. Further proposed amendments include life imprisonment for “desecrating the Quran through information systems” and the death sentence for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. The bill remained in legislative process at year’s end.

The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the PTA. The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on content-complaint@pta.gov.pk for action under PECA 16.”

In July PTA Chairman Amir Bajwa told the Senate that the government should either increase the PTA’s technical capabilities or block social media websites to stop the sharing of blasphemous content, which he said he believed mostly came from other countries. Bajwa also recommended the government sign mutual legal assistance treaties with other countries so that access to what the government considered blasphemous content on international social media platforms could be blocked in the country. Bajwa further stated the PTA had received 8,500 complaints regarding blasphemous internet content and had blocked approximately 40,000 websites for containing blasphemous material since 2010. Human rights activists and journalists expressed concern the government could use this initiative as a pretext to suppress views on the internet that differed from those of the government, including on religious issues.

According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Some Sikh and Hindu places of worship also reopened during the year. On July 29, the Evacuee Trust Property Board reopened the thousand-year-old Teja Singh Temple near Sialkot, Punjab Province that had been closed since 1947. The government further promised to restore and reopen more Hindu temples each year. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, built where the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak is said to have died, along with a visa-free transit corridor (the Kartarpur Corridor) for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Before the refurbishing of the site and the opening of the visa-free transit corridor, the gurdwara had fallen into disrepair, and Indian Sikhs were unable to visit. Prime Minister Khan welcomed Sikh pilgrims at the site’s inauguration and gave a speech celebrating Guru Nanak and religious tolerance.

Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.

Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. The NCHR remained without a new mandate for a second four-year term and without new commissioners at year’s end.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the federal Ministry of Law and Justice, as well as by the federal Ministry of Human Rights and its provincial counterparts. They also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.

On August 8, representatives of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Baha’i communities submitted a resolution to the prime minister requesting additional protection for religious minorities and women. The resolution called for the minimum age of marriage for women to be raised from 16 to 18 nationwide, the establishment of a federal ministry for religious minorities, a 5 percent quota for national and international educational scholarships for minorities, protection of minorities’ houses of worship from government seizure, and provision of spaces for worship for minority communities in state institutions. Additional requests included legislation to prevent discrimination against minorities, elimination of derogatory curriculum material, government subsidies for security at minorities’ schools, and legislation to address abductions, sexual violence, and forced conversions of women from religious minority communities. Finally, the resolution requested that minorities “be given particular protection” from the abuse of blasphemy laws.

In some cases, senior government officials condemned instances of discrimination by government officials. In March the ruling PTI party forced Punjab Provincial Minister for Information and Culture Fayyazul Hassan Chohan to resign after he made derogatory remarks against Hindus, and multiple cabinet ministers and senior advisors condemned Chohan’s speech. Chohan later received a new cabinet appointment as provincial minister for colonies in July and was reappointed as provincial minister for information and culture in December.

Legal observers continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, which led to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups such as the TLP often threatening the defendant’s attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, they reported, blasphemy trials were held inside the jail for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.

Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups saying they were defending the teaching that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet but were often characterized by hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims. On January 6, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari spoke at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference hosted by the Golra Sharif Shrine in Islamabad. According to media reports, Bukhari said that Pakistan would be the first to counter any propaganda against the finality of prophethood and that anyone working against the theological conviction “is not a human.” Bukhari later denied making anti-Ahmadi statements and tweeted on March 26, “Pakistan belongs to ALL Pakistanis.” On August 6, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai spoke at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar.

Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission as long as they did not claim to be Muslims.

Members of religious minority communities stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.

Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring, but there were exceptions. In September Pushpa Kumari became the country’s first female Hindu assistant subinspector of police. While there remained a 5 percent quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level, minority organizations said government employers did not enforce it. On October 15, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government notified the Supreme Court it had raised its quota for hiring religious minorities from 3 to 5 percent, bringing it to the 5 percent quota already required by the Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan Provincial governments. According to religious minority activists, however, provincial governments also often failed to meet such quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.

Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff still listed being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. In June civil rights activists from many faiths raised concerns over a Pakistan Army advertisement specifying only Christians could apply for the job of sanitation worker in the army’s Mujahid Force. On June 28, the director-general of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations Agency responded that the advertisement had been reposted with no discriminatory qualifications.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Education held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material. Officials of the Ministry of Human Rights stated in August that after their review and further reviews from the provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, “All hate speech had been removed” from school textbooks in these provinces. The Ministry of Human Rights reported the Ministry of Education adopted all its recommendations to remove hate speech, but its recommendations to include new rights-based content were not accepted. Some minority faith representatives said their inclusion in the review process was minimal, however, and stated they feared problematic content would remain in curricula. In a March peace conference, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine stated that Christian representatives would sit on the Punjab Textbook Board during the preparation of curriculum to ensure derogatory statements were removed, but the promise was reportedly not fulfilled at year’s end. Ahmadiyya community representatives said local associations of clerics frequently distributed anti-Ahmadi stickers to school districts to place on textbooks, and the school boards usually accepted them. These stickers contained phrases such as, “It is strictly prohibited in Sharia to speak to or do any business with Qadianis,” “The first sign of love of the Prophet is total boycott of Qadianis,” and “If your teacher is a Qadiani, refuse learning from him.”

While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools.

Prime Minister Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul-Haq Qadri all spoke on peace and interfaith harmony at the November 9 opening of the Kartarpur Corridor to the Sikh Gurdwara Darbar Sahib worship complex. Qadri and several PTI Members of the National Assembly spoke of the government’s commitment to stop kidnappings and forced conversions at a ministry-hosted event celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi. Member of the National Assembly Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali at a Sikh Gurdwara.

From September 1-10, leading to and during the Shia commemoration of Ashura, the ninth and tenth days of Muharram, the government emphasized unity among Muslims around the Ashura holiday. Prime Minister Khan, President Arif Alvi, and Foreign Minister Qureshi used the Ashura story to exhort Muslims to be ready to lay down their lives for the cause of good against evil. Law enforcement again deployed extra security around Shia processions in major cities throughout Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan Provinces, including for Hazara Shia communities in Quetta. According to civil society sources, authorities again restricted the movement and public sermons of both Sunni and Shia clerics accused of provoking sectarian violence. The government placed some clerics on Schedule 4, a list of proscribed persons based on reasonable suspicion of terrorism or sectarian violence, and temporarily detained others under the Maintenance of Public Order Act.

Authorities also provided enhanced security for Christian and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year. After an attack on a mosque in New Zealand that killed 51 on March 15, the government increased security at churches throughout the country, which Christian community members stated was out of concern for potential retaliation against Christians. Sindh Minorities’ Affairs Minister Hari Ram Kishori Lal announced on November 18 the provincial government would provide CCTV cameras to enhance security at 243 religious minority houses of worship in Sindh. Several activists and Christian pastors reported improved security at places of worship, notably in Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta during the major holidays of Holi, Ashura, and Christmas.

The Sindh provincial government declared Diwali a public holiday for Hindu government employees.

There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform. On September 3, the federal government approved the Ministry of Education’s assumption of administrative control and registration authority of the country’s estimated 30,000 madrassahs. Prime Minister Khan, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, and Chief of Army Staff General Javed Bajwa stated the goal of madrassah registration and curriculum reform was to bring madrassah students into the mainstream, create a uniform education policy, and improve madrassah graduates’ economic prospects. Government officials reported ongoing consultations with leaders of the five wafaqs throughout the year and stated the Ministry of Education would open 12 regional offices throughout the country to assist with the registration process.

On November 5, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the country was committed to taking concrete actions against terrorism under the NAP. The ministry further stated the country had taken “extensive legal and administrative measures” to implement its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 to freeze assets and deny funds to all UN-designated entities and individuals. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) continued to operate its “Surfsafe” app, launched in 2018, to help citizens report websites that published extremist content and hate speech.

Print and broadcast media outlets continued to occasionally publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. On November 9, PTI politician and former minister for science and technology Azam Swati said in a live talk show broadcast that he and PM Khan both “sent curses” upon Ahmadis, responding to Islamist politicians’ accusations that PM Khan was sympathetic to the Amhadiyya community. Ministry of Human Rights officials stated the government ordered PEMRA to monitor television broadcasts and take action against any broadcaster airing hate speech against Ahmadis. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and op-eds, estimating nearly 3,000 instances of hate speech were printed during the year, some of which could be considered inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media.

Civil society groups said the government made some progress in implementing a 2014 Supreme Court decision ordering the government to take several steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, including establishing a Supreme Court mechanism to hear complaints, a task force to protect religious minority places of worship, and a national commission for minority rights. On October 3, the Supreme Court established a special judicial panel made up of Supreme Court justices to hear petitions related to the rights of minorities and appointed a commissioner to oversee the court’s own implementation of the judgment. According to officials from the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior established a task force convening cabinet ministries, police branches, Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, and religious representatives to discuss implementation of the judgment. As chair of the task force, the Ministry of Human Rights stated it had given 10 priority action points to the ministries involved. The government did not establish a special task force to protect minority places of worship, as was called for by the judgment. Many faith community members, however, said they believed the government did increase efforts to protect places of worship. Human rights activists continued to state that neither the federal nor most provincial governments had made substantial progress in implementing other aspects of the 2014 decision. According to several human rights activists, the most notable area of inaction was the continued failure to establish an empowered National Commission for Minorities. Officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony and the Ministry of Human Rights stated they were committed to establishing such a commission as directed by the Supreme Court. Some civil society groups attributed lack of progress to a belief within the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony that such a commission was not necessary due to the existence of its own interfaith harmony commission.

Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, from bonded labor practices. Only eight of Sindh’s 29 districts have established District Vigilance Committees, which are legally mandated to monitor and eradicate bonded labor practices. Of the eight established District Vigilance Committees, only three are fulfilling their legal mandate. In some districts of Sindh Province, members of Hindu scheduled castes were disproportionately affected by bonded labor practices in agriculture and brick kiln industries, according to human rights activists. On December 19, the Sindh Provincial Assembly passed the Sindh Women Agriculture Act to strengthen protections for female agricultural workers, including the right to a written contract and collective bargaining, but implementing regulations were not drafted by year’s end. The Sindh Province government also did not pass regulations to implement the Bonded Labor Abolition Act of 2015, which would enhance the monitoring and eradication of bonded labor practices.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Societal abuses of religious freedom included targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia, including predominantly Shia Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.

Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan Province, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government increased security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.

On October 8, unknown assailants shot and killed Hindu trader Ashok Kumar in Hub, Balochistan Province, outside a hotel. The local trader community protested by blocking a road and burning tires. The motive of the assailants was unknown, and no arrests were reported.

According to Ahmadiyya community representatives, three incidents of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals took place. On January 3, in Mandi Bahauddin District, Punjab, Ahmadi Mahdi Khan was shot and killed by unknown assailants. According to community representatives, his family was the only Ahmadi family in their village, and Khan had received threats from TLP members before the killing. His family relocated after the killing out of fear of further violence. On March 14, two Ahmadi men were killed in Koh Fateh Jang in what the Ahmadi community said it believed was a targeted killing, but other sources said may have been a land dispute.

There were no reports of individuals killed for apostasy, but members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.

Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. On June 7, a 12-year-old Hindu girl in Hyderabad, Sindh was found unconscious after being raped. Police later arrested two suspects. On September 16, 25-year-old Hindu dental college student Nimrita Chandani was found dead in her college hostel room in Larkana, Sindh Province, in what her friends and family said was a murder staged as suicide. The school administration originally stated the death was a suicide, but an ensuing postmortem exam showed evidence of rape and strangulation. The Sindh High Court ordered a judicial inquiry on September 18 and, according to media reports, detained 32 individuals for questioning, but there were no charges at year’s end. CLAAS reported numerous cases of rapes of Christian women, including 17-year-old Sara Aslam from Sheikhapura, who was allegedly abducted and raped by Muslim man Ali Raza on May 15. According to CLAAS, police did not arrest the suspect until several Christians drew attention to the case. According to CLAAS and the PCLJ, although the victims filed reports with local police, they were treated similarly to most rape cases, in which the cases rarely went to trial or received a verdict due to threats from the accused party’s family, lack of witnesses, or lack of interest from police.

According to CLAAS and PCLJ, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked after spurning a man’s advances, including Saima Sardar, who was reportedly shot and killed on July 10 in Faisalabad by Muhammad Waseem after she refused to convert to Islam and marry him.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh, continued to occur. In an April report, HRCP said 1000 cases of forced conversions of Christian and Hindu women were reported in 2018 in Sindh alone. The group reported Hindu girls were being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to Muslim men. According to HRCP’s interviews, Hindu community leaders said they believed girls were held against their will for several days, sometimes raped, and coerced into giving a conversion testimony. Some community representatives stated influential Muslim clerics, including the custodian of the Bharchundi Sharif Mian Mithoo Shrine, were driving a conversion campaign that took advantage of poverty, low education, and a desire to escape low social status. The HRCP report further stated that influential local business and political leaders turned a blind eye to forced conversions due to their business interests with newly established madrassas along growing trade routes.

Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. CLAAS reported at least 15 young Christian women were kidnapped and forcibly converted during the year. Of these cases, three women were returned to their families by orders of the court. For example, on February 6, a 14-year-old Christian girl named Sadaf Khan was kidnapped in Bahawalpur, Punjab Province, and forcibly married and converted. According to minority rights activists, a Muslim man named Mubashir harassed her as she went to and from school, and after she withdrew from school because of his intimidation, he kidnapped her. Christian activists reported that this case and others affected entire communities, because many young women withdrew from school as a result. As of the end of the year, no charges had been filed and Khan was believed to still be held by her abductor.

International and Pakistani media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking. In May the FIA arrested eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis in Punjab Province in connection with the trafficking. In September FIA investigators sent a report detailing cases against 52 Chinese citizens and 20 Pakistani associates in Punjab and Islamabad to Prime Minister Khan, according to the Associated Press. In October a court in Faisalabad, Punjab acquitted 31 of the accused Chinese citizens after several women interviewed by police refused to testify. According to human rights activists and officials cited in media reports, the government pressured the FIA to end its investigation out of concern for damaging the country’s relationship with China.

Kalash representatives in Khyber-Paktunkha Province continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim school teachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.

On March 20, Khatib Hussain, a student at Bahawalpur Government Sadiq Egerton College, stated he killed head of the English department Khalid Hameed for “speaking against Islam.” When asked in an interview after the killing why he did not oppose his professor with lawful methods, the student stated the country’s laws were “freeing the blasphemers.” Police arrested Hameed, but as of year’s end had not brought charges against him. Media reported that a preacher associated with TLP and suspected of inciting the killing was not charged and was released on bail.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and vernacular media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including language that could incite violence against Ahmadis.

Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks on Ahmadi individuals, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On March 14, an Ahmadi wedding was disrupted in Mirpurkhas, Sindh Province, when Muslim clerics forced the wedding hall owner to evict the wedding party in the middle of the ceremony. In Peshawar, a pharmacy owner lost all his employees after khatm-e-nabuwat activists threatened him and his staff. Also in Peshawar, the children of one Ahmadi family were expelled from a private school for their faith. There was a surge in condemnations of Ahmadis following formerly imprisoned Ahmadi Abdul Shakoor’s participation in a July 17 meeting of religious persecution survivors with President Trump at the White House. On July 26, Barelvi Sunni groups observed a nationwide “black day” against the government’s so-called pro-Ahmadiyya stance and held rallies in major cities. Although the rallies were not covered in print or electronic media, photographs and video footage circulated on social media. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives also noted an increase in social harassment in July and August after Shakoor’s participation in the White House meeting. In Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province, local residents organized a khatm-e-nabuwat procession, forced a young Ahmadi man to abandon his job and leave the town, and attacked the home of a recent convert to Ahmadiyya Islam. According to media reports, in August the Islamabad Bar Association made membership for anyone identifying as Muslim contingent on swearing an oath to the finality of prophethood. Islamist politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman gave several speeches attacking Ahmadis and accusing Prime Minister Khan of being sympathetic to Ahmadis during a two-week protest in November.

Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants. Media reported Javed Masih, a Christian, was killed by his employer, Abbas Olaf, after informing Abbas he was leaving the farm job for which he was paid less than minimum wage. Yasir Talib, an activist who collaborates with the Punjab Provincial Ministry for Human Rights and Minority Affairs in Faisalabad, said, “Many Muslims also work in the fields, but conditions for Christians are four times worse.” In November Christian journalist Gonila Gill stated she resigned her job in Lahore after harassment from Muslim coworkers pressuring her to convert to Islam and denigrating her religion.

Observers reported English-language media covered issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. Many Facebook users posted a profile frame calling for the death of Ahmadis after formerly imprisoned Ahmadi Abdul Shakoor’s participation in a July 17 meeting of religious persecution survivors at the White House. Facebook removed the profile frame on July 31 and said the company did not tolerate any content that incites violence.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.

Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. On February 6, unknown vandals broke into a Hindu temple and burned religious scriptures and images in Kumb, Sindh Province. Prime Minister Khan condemned the incident as “against the teachings of the Quran” and urged the Sindh government to take “swift and decisive action” against the perpetrators. On April 21, vandals broke into a Shia mosque in Karachi and damaged books, religious symbols, and names of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Police registered complaints from the mosque’s leader under the antiblasphemy law. In May unknown individuals vandalized a Christian cemetery in the village of Okara, Punjab, destroying crosses and desecrating the graves of two priests.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials met with government officials and senior advisors to the prime minister, including the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.

In February the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with cabinet members, religious leaders, and members of civil society. The Ambassador at Large expressed concern about the country’s blasphemy laws and individuals serving life sentences or facing death under these laws, as well as the country’s anti-Ahmadi laws and sectarian violence, with the ministers of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, and Human Rights, and the foreign secretary. The Ambassador at Large also recognized the government for positive steps taken to advance the rights of religious minorities, such as statements by leadership condemning violence, threats, or denigration of individuals on the basis of their faith. The Ambassador at Large hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives of various religious communities on religious freedom conditions and ways to improve them. He also visited the Eidgah Sharif Shrine in Rawalpindi and discussed opportunities to promote interfaith harmony among persons of all faith traditions.

The U.S. government funded a police curriculum development program in Sindh which included a module on human rights. This training, which every recruit and in-service trainee completes, included lessons on identifying forced conversions and training police on how to protect the rights of religious minorities.

In April the Charge d’Affaires toured the Eidgah Sharif Shrine in Rawalpindi to show respect for a uniquely South Asian expression of Islam and demonstrate the importance of interfaith engagement. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met with groups of civil society and interfaith activists to discuss the situation of religious minorities and other vulnerable communities and avenues for engagement by U.S. government representatives.

In April the Consul General in Karachi led a delegation of Muslim, Catholic, Sikh, Bohra Muslim, and Parsi faith leaders and community representatives on a tour of different religious sites in Karachi to celebrate interfaith harmony and religious freedom. Diplomats from the United Kingdom, Germany, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan also participated in the tour. On November 22, the Charge d’Affaires and the Consul General in Peshawar discussed religious freedom and respect with Muslim and Christian clerics at Peshawar’s historic Mohabbat Khan Mosque.

Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect between religions and enhance dialogue. Department of State programs helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders.

The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.

On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they probably constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, probably number at least a few hundred, most of whom are of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Foreign embassies indicate the noncitizen population, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion. The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna. The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

Blasphemy against Islam may also be legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences and lashings. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” On January 25, authorities issued implementation regulations that criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

Clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the king’s behalf. By decree, the CPVPV’s activities are limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; those actions are explicitly reserved as the purview of the police and counternarcotics units. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges. The CPVPV’s religious purview includes the prohibited public practice of non-Islamic faiths or displaying emblems (such as crosses) thereof; failing to respect Islam, including Ramadan fasting; “immodest” dress; displaying or selling media “contrary to Islam;” and venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters, and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent. In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; in some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.

Social media users who post or share satire attacking religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000). The country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter: “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

There were NGO and Shia activist reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including two cases of abuse that led to prisoners’ deaths. On November 13, human rights NGOs announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country said that authorities tortured al-Ribh while detained. In January another Shia activist, Naif al-Omran, died after eight years in detention, while serving a 20-year sentence for protest-related charges in Qatif dating back to 2011. According to al-Omran’s family, his body bore visible marks of abuse.

On April 23, the MOI announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” According to HRW, at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah was among the executed. Amnesty International said those executed were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards and which relied on confessions extracted through torture. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented, “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16; and Said Mohammed al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17. The government denied the individuals were minors and disputed the ages reported by HRW and ESOHR. The mass executions were the largest since January 2016.

On January 7, security forces raided the predominately Shia al-Jish village for suspected “links to cases of state security” in al-Qatif Governorate, killing six people and arresting others after an exchange of fire, according to Saudi Press Agency. Five officers were also wounded in the operation.

On May 11, security forces killed eight members of an alleged Shia terrorist cell in a security operation in Taroot in Qatif Governorate in the Eastern Province, according to the Presidency of State Security. The statement added the newly formed “terrorist cell” had plans to carry out terrorist operations targeting vital installations and security sites.

On January 8, security forces stormed the Shia village of Umm al-Hamam, killing five persons and injuring an unspecified number, according to SRW. SRW said authorities also used armored vehicles in a separate operation in Jaroudiya town. SRW also reported a number of arrests during these operations, including Qatif-based Shia rights activist Mohammemod Nabil al-Jowhar on January 11.

On January 20, the London-based human rights group ALQST (“Justice” in Arabic) reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Authorities detained Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, in 2018, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, and ALQST reported the 69-year-old’s death was caused by “intentional neglect” on the part of the prison authorities.

On August 3, rights groups reported the death of Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri due to health complications he had developed at Tarafia Prison. Authorities kept Al-Dhamiri, who suffered from a heart condition, in solitary confinement, according to the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account.

On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that al-Qadi had died in prison. The government detained Al-Qadi in 2016 and sentenced him in October to six years in prison. The circumstances surrounding his death remained unknown at year’s end. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after he sent a letter of advice to the Royal Court.

As many as 39 individuals, most of them believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to ESOHR. ESOHR also reported that up to seven minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher. The government disputed the claim that these individuals were minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted, and noted the courts use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations (which could differ from Western Gregorian calendar ages by a few months). Five Shia individuals, including al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher, faced a final death sentence and nine faced preliminary death sentences, which still needed to be upheld by an appellate court, the Supreme Court, and the king. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal after his second verdict. Some human rights NGOs reported that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.” International human rights NGOs reported that these individuals said authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On August 25, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, to an additional five years in prison and a five-year ban on international travel after he was convicted of supporting demonstrations in Qatif and cybercrimes. According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

On February 1, human rights NGOs reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals, including her husband.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes and authorities suggested informally that there were no current plans to do so. According to international human rights contacts, Badawi declared a hunger strike in September to protest his poor treatment and lack of medical attention while in prison. In December he reportedly went on a second hunger strike to protest his placement in solitary confinement.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. In January local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery.

In April, authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, who wrote in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia in the country. By year’s end, authorities had not filed official charges against them and they remained in detention. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Sadiq and al-Ibrahim write regularly for Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, a Qatari funded news website based in London, while al-Marzouqi published articles on his own blog as well as contributing to Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and to the Okaz newspaper.

During the year, the SCC continued trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and the Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents. In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.” The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.” The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization. Amnesty International reported al-Odah was ill-treated while in prison, including solitary confinement.

On May 18, authorities released Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer from prison after he completed his eight-year jail term. Officers arrested al-Amer in 2011 and the SCC convicted him in August 2014 of slander against the state and abuse of the faith, stirring up sectarian strife, and calling for change in a series of sermons delivered in 2011.

In March authorities detained Shia cleric Majed al-Sadah for three days over comments criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in his hometown of Saihat, Qatif Governorate. According to online activists, al-Sadah had to sign a written pledge to refrain from interfering in internal affairs. According to Al-Jazeera, authorities arrested cleric Omar al-Muqbil in September after he criticized music concerts sponsored by GEA, calling them a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to the Prisoners of Conscience rights group. Al-Muqbil described in a video the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society.”

A court sentenced an Indian national to 10 years for “misusing social media,” “blasphemy,” and “hurting the religious and national sentiment of the Kingdom.”

During the year, social media reported the SCC held many hearings in the trial of influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali. The government detained al-Hawali along with three of his sons in 2018. Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.

During the year, the SCC held at least five hearings on the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. In 2018, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labeling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS.

In February Deputy Governor of Makkah Province Badr bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz ordered the arrest of comedian Yasir Bakr for allegedly mocking the CPVPV at an entertainment event in Jeddah. Bakr, founder of Al-Comedy Club in Jeddah, later appeared in a video on Twitter apologizing for his comments.

On April 20, local media reported that the public prosecutor summoned a man for investigation regarding a tweet that “disturbed public order” under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. According to press reports, the man tweeted a call for all women in the country wearing a niqab to come together at Riyadh Boulevard in order to burn them, according to media reports.

On June 23, authorities arrested Dammam-based Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullatif Hussain al-Nasser when he attempted to travel to Bahrain. The government provided no reason for his arrest. Security officials interrogated Abdullatif and then transferred him to the State Security Prison in Dammam, according to activists.

On June 27, the SCC held the first hearing for three Shia men, Ramzi al-Jamal, Ali Hasan al-Zayyed, and Mohammed Issa al-Labbad, who turned themselves in to security authorities in 2017 after their names appeared on a list of 23 individuals wanted by the authorities. The public prosecutor sought the death penalty for the three on protest-related charges, according to ESOHR and activists.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons; it restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas. In 2018 the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. A May article in a government-linked newspaper described the hotline as a 24/7 service to report “undisciplined imams and mosques that need maintenance.” In 2018 the MOIA launched a mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) which monitors sermons and allows mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

In March the Council of Ministers approved a new regulation for imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina stipulating that the clerics be “moderate,” among other requirements.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden. Some Shia community members reported that Shia pilgrims were permitted to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj. Sources also stated that Shia pilgrims were permitted to approach, but not touch, the graves of the four Shia imams buried in the al-Baqi Cemetery in Medina for a period of two hours after morning prayers and two hours after noon prayers.

Since 2016, authorities have permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the largest Shia population in the country. These commemorations included significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There is, however, a public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. There also is a private, non-Muslim cemetery only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunni practice), or in some instances not to close at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government prohibited eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction for employment credit, while the government generally recognized graduates of Sunni religious training institutions for government positions and religious jobs.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The Institute for Gulf Studies found that Saudi textbooks in 2019 were still teaching students that “Christians, Jews, and other Muslims are ‘enemies’ of the true believer, and to befriend and show respect only to other true believers, specifically the Wahhabis.” According to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Saudi textbooks in 2019 taught students “to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death.” Shia community representatives in the Eastern Province reported throughout 2018-19 that textbooks no longer disparaged Shia beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League reported the newest edition of textbooks for the fall of 2019 continued to contain problematic passages.

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that contained “objectionable” content such as views of religion it considered extremist or ill-informed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anti-cybercrimes law. The government also located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to approve extension of endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Authorities allowed Shia communities to rebuild a mosque in Taroot, near Qatif, during the year. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur, particularly with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. There were seven Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Muslims were concentrated, had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. Shia Muslims were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. According to HRW, the Saudi government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

According to international human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

There were continued media reports that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Reports of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, reportedly were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government hosted many Jewish and Christian religious leaders, but did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis, continued to hold low-profile services without government harassment, although they reportedly found restrictions on clergy travel particularly problematic. Authorities also allowed regular visits by the Catholic bishop, resident in Bahrain, who has responsibility for Catholics in the country, and by evangelical Protestant leaders.

In November the Presidency of State Security released a video on Twitter that categorized feminism, homosexuality, and atheism as extremist ideas. The animated clip said “all forms of extremism and perversion are unacceptable.” It also included takfir, the practice by some Muslims of labeling followers of other schools of Islam unbelievers, among the categories of unacceptable behavior. The security agency later deleted the post and said the video contained “many mistakes” while suggesting that those behind it would face a formal investigation, according to a statement posted by the official press agency.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, [and] The Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion.” In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

On April 5, August 23, October 11, and December 27, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Makkah in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

In May the Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa called for the protection of followers of religions and places of worship after the terrorist attack on a Jewish temple in California and previous terrorist crimes. Al-Issa offered condolences to a number of Jewish religious leaders in New York.

During the May MWL International Conference on Moderation in Islam in Mecca, King Salman called for encouraging “concepts of tolerance and moderation, while strengthening the culture of consensus and reconciliation.” He added that the country was founded on values of moderation. The conference adopted the “Mecca Charter,” which calls for laws “to deter the promotion of hatred, the instigation of violence and terrorism, or a clash of civilizations, which foster religious and ethnic disputes.”

During the year, some Qatari nationals again reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017. The Saudi Press Agency announced that Qataris and foreign residents of Qatar would be allowed to land at Jeddah or Medina airports to perform the Hajj. The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah and Medina. In May, however, the government of Qatar stated that the Saudi government continued to deny Qatar-based religious tour operators’ access to Saudi Arabia to make Hajj and Umrah arrangements for pilgrims. Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said that the government rejected the politicization of the holy rituals, adding that it has never barred any nationalities from performing them.

On September 10, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Jeddah. Following the meeting, the group met with MWL Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level. The delegation and the MWL agreed in a joint statement to promote respect for religions and mutual trust and to encourage religious harmony.

On April 28, al-Issa visited a New York synagogue, the first such trip by an MWL leader to a Jewish house of worship in the United States, and signed an agreement with the NGO Appeal of Conscience Foundation supporting the protection of religious sites around the world. On April 30, al-Issa signed a memorandum of understanding with American Jewish Committee (AJC) in which the MWL and AJC agreed “to further Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperate against racism and extremism in all its forms.” In May the MWL invited a Jewish delegation to visit the country in January 2020. Al-Issa said discussions during the visit, the first ever by a Jewish group, would address the issue of Holocaust denial.

In November the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Issa visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss “ways of supporting bridging relations between followers of religions and cultures to promote peace and positive harmony.”

At the annual Jeddah International Book Fair, several vendors sold anti-Semitic material, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Additional titles were observed that linked Jews to conspiracies.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother, reportedly because he was a Shia. Local media reported the public prosecutor’s office in Medina assured the victim’s family that it was investigating the perpetrator.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were commonly found in public discourse. In September an academic at Qassim University, Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out Shia from the holy city of Medina, stating that “myths and self-flagellation of Persians has reached the holiest place on earth… They must be uprooted and eradicated before this disease spreads.” In January cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini named Shia “rejectionists” in a tweet. In February another tweet described Shia as “enemies of God” and “infidels.”

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Anti-Semitic comments occasionally appeared in the media. In January columnist Muhammad al-Sa’idi wrote in an article in Al-Watan newspaper that Jews deliberately promote the publication and circulation of anti-Semitic literature in Arab countries that describes them as secretly running the world “in order to convince the Arabs of their power and thereby demoralize and frighten them.” When the same literature appears in the West, he added, the Jews fight it in order to maintain their positive image and present themselves as victims.”

On March 3, journalist and businessman Hussein Shobakshi wrote in his column in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat Arabic daily, owned by a member of the royal family, of the “deeply rooted hatred of Jews in Islamic culture,” in which the term “Jew” is strongly derogatory. He stated, “Anti-Semitism in the Arab world is the product of loathsome, racist education that is rooted in the Arab mentality that is used to labeling people according to tribal, family, and racial affiliation, and according to the religious school to which they belong.”

On April 5 and August 23, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” His prayer included, “Oh Allah, show us the wonders of Your might and ability inflicted upon them.”

In May columnist Mansour al-Nugaidan, who U.S. National Public Radio described as a former “jihadi” turned “moderate,” said in an interview with Dubai-based Rotana Khalijiah TV channel “atheism is a faith that should be respected because it’s man’s choice.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, the Vice President called on the government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating Badawi and others “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” Senior embassy and consulate general officers pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, the MOIA, the Muslim World League, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that according to NGO and media sources was exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. According to media and NGO sources, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, persistent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimated the government arbitrarily detained nearly 3,000 citizens. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted largely Sunni opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, chemical weapons attacks, and aerial bombardment, including a siege of Idlib Governorate and a May 19 chemical weapons attack in Idlib as part of the government’s effort to retake the area. Government and progovernment forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April that continued through the end of the year to recapture Idlib, northern Hama, Ladhiqiyah, and western Aleppo, killing thousands of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee from devastating attacks on civilian infrastructure, including damage or destruction of 51 medical facilities. The government continued to use Law No. 10 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to claim their property or return to their homes. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable up to imprisonment or death. Progovernment forces were implicated in attacks on Christian places of worship throughout the year. SNHR documented 124 attacks on Christian places of worship from 2011 until September, 75 of which were carried out by progovernment forces. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia individuals (such as Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran) to travel to the country and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to state the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups, including some Christians, viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) reported nonstate actors, including terrorist organizations such as ISIS and HTS, targeted religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians throughout the course of the conflict. Until its territorial defeat in April, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and homosexuality. On November 11, ISIS members shot and killed two Armenian Catholic priests and wounded a church deacon as they headed from Hasakah to Deir al-Zour to oversee the renovation of a church. On October 7, the Turkish army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups (TSOs), some of which may include fighters from violent extremist groups, launched Operation Peace Spring (OPS) in areas of northeast Syria held by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, displacing by October 21, 154,000 persons, including Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. Since 2014, ISIS abducted an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, as well as numerous Christian and ethnic Turkmen women; NGOs and activists reported that more than 2,000 have since escaped, been liberated, or been released. The United Nations estimated that ISIS militants killed or kidnapped more than 9,000 Yezidis in “a genocidal campaign.” According to community leaders, more than 3,000 Yazidis remained unaccounted for at year’s end. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities, and seizing the homes and agricultural lands of thousands of Christians in and around the town of Qameshli. According to a U.S. think tank, Iranian-backed Hizballah attempted to ignite intra-Druze conflict and recruited Shia militias to aid Iranian-backed Shia forces aiding the government.

Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups. Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups as displaced members of religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.2 million IDPs and more than 5.6 million refugees at year’s end.

The President and Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. Although the U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere in the region with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). At year’s end there were more than 5.6 million refugees, primarily Sunni, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries, as well as 6.2 million IDPs. Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

The U.S. government estimates the Christian population is 10 percent, although media and other reports, such as those issued by Americans for a Free Syria estimate that figure is considerably lower, approximately 2.5 percent or 450,000 individuals, due to Christians fleeing the country because of the civil war. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, and NGOs estimated fewer than 20 Jews remained in the country in 2012. It is unclear how many, if any, Jews currently remain in the country. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country. Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces. Twelver Shia generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. The majority of Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also live in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus. The highest concentration of Ismaili Muslims is in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox Churches, the Eastern Catholic (or Uniate) Churches (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian Churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Sweida Governorate, where they constitute a majority of the local population. Yezidis previously lived in Aleppo, but now live mainly in northeast Syria areas controlled by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 2018 law regulates the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The law grants the Awqaf additional powers, including the establishment of a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist or deviant thought. The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.” The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight over the country’s religious affairs.

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

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

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation. Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce. Per the Personal Status Code, a Muslim man may marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam and may not inherit any property or wealth from her husband, even if she converts. The law states that if a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

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

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.

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

Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state. If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government. An individual may prove ownership only in person or through designated proxies.

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

Government Practices

According to press and NGO reporting, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, persistent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi-dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population. According to SNHR, the civilian death toll during the year was 3,364, of which more than half was at the hands of the government and its allies. The COI stated Sunnis accounted for a majority of civilian casualties and detainees.

During the year, SNHR estimated the government and progovernment militias arbitrarily detained nearly 3,000 citizens. According to a September SNHR report, the government used “enforced disappearance” and secretly arrested more than 128,417 citizens since 2011. The report stated detainees were subject to torture intended to “inflict serious physical damage or cause severe pain for numerous purposes, whether to extract information, for retaliation, or to cause panic among detainees.” Human rights organizations and civil society groups continued to report the government arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of citizens, mainly Sunnis, with the support of Iranian Shia forces militias, without due process. The SNHR report stated arbitrary arrests of individuals occurred on a daily basis since the start of the conflict for “exercising one of their basic rights such as the freedom of opinion and expression, or because they were denied a fair trial, or because they were detained after their punishment had ended.” The SNHR report stated the government was responsible for at least 89 percent of all arbitrary arrests; nonstate actors also engaged in this practice. In most cases, victims’ families could not accurately identify the progovernment entity that made the arrest because Iranian militias, the predominantly Shia Lebanese Hizballah, and all other progovernment forces were able to engage in arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

The Syria Justice & Accountability Centre reported government forces operated with impunity while systematic, officially sanctioned torture continued. According to SNHR, since 2011, more than 14,000 persons died from torture in government custody and the vast majority were Sunni Muslims. During the year, government forces were reportedly responsible for 275 deaths by torture. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, the vast majority were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition.

In 2018 government officials began releasing death notices of thousands of prisoners held in government detention facilities and continued releasing them during the year. The government did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred. According to numerous NGO and media reports, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. Amnesty International estimated during the year that thousands of citizens, mostly Sunni Muslims, remained missing. SNHR said the government delayed announcing detainees as certified dead until years later as a way of punishing victims’ families. The Washington Post reported in March that the notices referenced detainees who died between 2013 and 2015, with the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslim.

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

As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, according to media and NGOs, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, chemical weapons attacks, and aerial bombardment, including a siege of Idlib Governorate as part of the government’s effort to retake the area. Government and progovernment forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April to recapture Idlib, northern Hama, Ladhiqiyah, and western Aleppo, killing thousands of civilians and forcing at least one million more to flee following devastating attacks on civilian infrastructure, including damage or destruction of 51 medical facilities. The assault, involving use of heavy weapons and likely use of chemical weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Government and Russian air strikes repeatedly struck civilian targets, including hospitals, markets, schools, and farms, many of which, these parties had been informed in advance, were sheltering vulnerable civilians. According to the COI, multiple human rights organizations, and media reports, government and progovernment forces used weaponry indiscriminately against civilian and military targets in densely populated areas, used chemical weapons, and denied humanitarian aid.

The COI, SNHR, and human rights activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the government. Analysts said this was evidenced by population shifts in Homs. According an April Atlantic Council report, the government continued to implement Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country, by revoking property rights, specifically of displaced residents from areas considered to be antigovernment. Groups such as SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature.

Many human rights NGOs reported throughout the year the government invoked positive slogans that depicted itself as a “protector of the people,” especially minority communities, such as Christians; however, on the ground, they said the government did the opposite. The SNHR documented 124 attacks on Christian places of worship from 2011 until September, 75 of which were carried out by progovernment forces. Six of these attacks occurred during the year.

Most opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist in statements and publications. According to observers, these groups drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element. Some NGO sources stated that the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from attacks by Sunni extremist groups. Other NGO sources said that some minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to use Law No. 10 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to claim their property and return to their homes. According to a September report from the Carnegie Middle East Center, since the law’s enactment, the government has begun to replace residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies, including by allowing only religious institutions submissive to government control to operate in those areas. The government’s policies disproportionately impacted Sunni populations. One U.S.-based NGO described the law as part of the government’s attempt to legalize demographic change and stated, “it is unlikely that displaced citizens will ever see their property again.” In August SHNR said that Law No. 10 and other legislation “constitute a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs, amounting to enforced evictions and to an effort to manipulate demographics and social structures” of the country. According to multiple press reports and human rights organizations, the vast majority of refugees and displaced were Sunni and were viewed with suspicion by the government. In December the UN Secretary-General and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported approximately 284,000 persons fled from their homes, mainly in southern Idlib, due to the large-scale regime assault on the Idlib Governorate.

In January the government extended the window from 30 days to one year for citizens to prove they owned land being seized for development under Law No. 10, but NGOs stated it would be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property. They said the procedural requirement of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population. Subsequently, in a July report, the European Institute of Peace stated many citizens were unable to assert their housing, land, and property rights due to land zoning, titling, and documentation, and the government continued to prevent displaced residents from returning to their properties, including by blocking access to the properties or demolishing their properties with no warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation. Despite the existence of an appeals process, NGOs continued to express serious concern the law was being implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

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

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas. Voice of America reported during the year that Iranian military advisers were building a new, all-Syrian militia force in an attempt to augment Tehran’s support of other Shia militias in the country. According to NGO reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia individuals, such as Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran, to travel to the country and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. Representatives of the Iranian government stated its forces were present in the country to protect the Zainab Shrine, a Shia holy site just outside Damascus, and other Shia holy places.

According to a March report from the Carnegie Middle East Institute, as the government recaptured areas from rebel groups, authorities began reviving their previous model of control through a renewed reliance on trusted local religious actors while introducing institutional measures to ensure the government retained its central influence in the country’s religious affairs. State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach on the air (e.g., the imam of Umayyad Mosque) and coverage of the Qubaysiyat (a pro-regime female religious group) meetings with President Bashar al-Assad.

According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services; however, the senior officer corps of the military accepted into its ranks individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption. There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population.

Media and academic experts said the government and its Russian and Iranian allies led a robust disinformation campaign that continued to portray the armed resistance humanitarian and aid groups in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and were terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance. The official state Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) routinely reported on the government’s struggle to “expose the true nature of the organization known as the White Helmets” calling the group, a volunteer rescue and relief organization, a risk to stability and security “because of its terrorist nature.”

The government continued to warn the Sunni population against contact with foreign coreligionists, which it characterized as facilitating political opposition or military activity. For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the religious leaders abroad.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and called any Israeli strikes against Hizballah in Syria and Gaza “Zionist aggression.” The government repeated its claim that a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s continuing conflict.

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

SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in damage to or destruction of places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques. Additionally, the government conducted targeted attacks against places of worship the government said were occupied by armed fighters. On September 9, SNHR released a report stating that it had evidence of the government targeting churches, mosques, and other religious sites since 2011. According to the report, there were attacks on 124 Christian houses of worship during this period and progovernment forces carried out 75 of them. During the year, SNHR reported at least 11 Christian places of worship were turned into administrative headquarters – six at the hands of government forces and two at the hands of other parties to the conflict. It was not clear who was responsible for conversion of the three remaining churches.

A May 2018 COI report detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a “reconciliation process” as a condition for remaining in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly was not offered often to healthcare personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement through organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government, and it reflected the government strategy to punish those individuals. This practice continued throughout the year as the government regained control of additional territory.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Christians reported they continued to feel threatened by violent extremist groups. According to observers, the Sunni Islamist character of the opposition continued to drive members of the Christian community to maintain support for the government. Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi met on August 12, releasing a joint statement praying for the safe return of the two abducted Archbishops of Aleppo: Boulos Yazigi and Mor Gregorious Youhanna Ibrahim, who have been missing since 2013. In the statement, the patriarchs acclaimed “the victory of [government] leadership, army, and people… over terrorism” in the country and discussed the “alarmingly diminishing” numbers of Christians, who are emigrating.

Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversion relatively rare – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law. They also reported societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice their new religion openly.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the opposition’s primary political umbrella organization, and the Syrian Negotiations Committee, an opposition umbrella organization responsible for negotiating on behalf of the opposition with the government, continued to condemn attacks and discrimination against religious groups, both by the government and by extremist and terrorist groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President and the Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The President repeatedly stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that such a solution should establish credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance.

Following instability in northeast Syria due to OPS, the President announced in October that he intended to obligate $50 million in stabilization assistance to protect members of persecuted ethnic and religious minority groups. The Department of State worked to develop an implementation plan to carry out the President’s announced funding to address the immediate needs of religious minorities in Syria, as well as the longer-term goals for the advancement of human rights and accountability in the country.

The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the moderate opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens. These efforts included support for the Constitutional Committee process that began in October in Geneva aimed at paving the way for political reforms and new elections. The Secretary of State attended the Syria Small Group meeting with ministers from like-minded states during the UN General Assembly session in September. At the meeting, the Secretary and the Small Group Ministers expressed their support for the United Nations’ role in negotiating a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, facilitates free and fair elections, and establishes inclusive and nonsectarian governance. In addition, the Secretary affirmed the U.S. commitment to the country’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012. U.S. government representatives met with religious groups and leaders in the United States and elsewhere in the region. They met with representatives of the World Council of Arameans, Free Yazidi Foundation, and Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque, as part of its effort to promote an inclusive political settlement for the conflict. A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, officials from the Office of Levant Affairs, and other officials participated in dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence. At the UN General Assembly, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement hosted with the support of the special envoys from France, Germany, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom a panel discussion on accountability for human rights abuses, including those committed against religious minorities. Groups representing religious minority communities in Syria participated in the event. Department of State officials held meetings with Yezidi-rights groups and Greek Orthodox leaders, and met in July with Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

In July the Department of State announced a “Rewards for Justice,” offering a monetary reward for information on ISIS kidnapping networks or the persons responsible for the kidnapping in recent years of Christian clerics Maher Mahfouz, Michael Kayyal, Gregorios Ibrahim, Boulos Yazigi, and Paolo Dall’Oglio.

The United States continued to support the documentation, analysis, and preservation of evidence of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict, including those committed against religious minorities, through the COI and International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria, as well as through direct support for Syrian-led documentation efforts.

Turkmenistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs. The law on religion requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to reregister with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) every three years in order to operate legally. According to religious organizations, government security forces continued to surveil religious organizations and ban the importation of religious literature, and it remained difficult to obtain places of worship. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as of the end of the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service, including several new cases of Witnesses sentenced during the year, to terms from one year to four years. The government continued not to offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that police in Ashgabat and Lebap Province forced men under 40 to shave their beards and mustaches. The government did not register any previously unregistered religious groups during the year. Two previously registered groups successfully reregistered during the year although they stated that registration requirements were onerous. According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of some registered and unregistered Christian organizations continued to face official and unofficial harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics and scrutinize or obstruct religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes. In September and November, the Ministry of Justice hosted roundtable meetings for all registered and unregistered religious groups in which members could advocate for their organizations, ask questions, and refer problems to a panel of government ministry representatives. The government promised to identify a point of contact for groups to contact to ask questions and resolve issues, and to create a website that would have information and a portal for posing questions. Many religious groups stated this was a productive meeting and a small sign of progress, but continued to experience an either poor or complete lack of response to inquiries. Outside of the roundtable meeting and direct communication with the ministries, religious groups have no official methods of advocacy.

Religious leaders and others stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Between September 2018 and May 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that unknown individuals distributed leaflets in Russian and Turkmen containing defamatory statements about the Witnesses. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even “excessive” expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported societal prejudices against religious groups that are not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox.

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy officials, and other U.S. government representatives, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. U.S. officials raised issues, including the legal status of conscientious objectors, the country’s listing as a “Country of Particular Concern,” the ability of religious groups to register and reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. The Ambassador personally requested that the president pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors. Embassy officers met on a regular basis with 11 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom. Topics discussed with these groups included: the status and challenges of the groups’ registration and reregistration, the groups’ ability to secure a permanent place of worship, the requirement to keep a legal address in a location physically separate from the place of worship, the challenges of importing religious literature, harassment of members by both government and nongovernment entities, restrictions on proselytizing, the religious groups’ relations with the government, interfaith cooperation, the ability of clerics to access prisoners and military personnel, and the organizations’ ability to carry out educational and charity activities.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, the country is 89 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 2 percent other. There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, Roman Catholics, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.

Most ethnic Russians and Armenians identify as Orthodox Christian and generally are members of the Russian Orthodox Church or Armenian Apostolic Church. Some ethnic Russians and Armenians are also members of smaller Protestant groups.

There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, consisting largely of ethnic Iranians, Azeris, and Kurds, some located in Ashgabat, with others along the border with Iran and in the western city of Turkmenbashy.

According to the Israeli embassy, approximately 200 Jews live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; a registration fee of 100 manat ($29); and the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders. Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of National Security (MNB), Ministry of Interior (MVD), and other government offices. According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request the biographic information of all members of an organization applying for registration. The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but does not define that term. Each subsidiary congregation of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals. According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine up to 1,000 manat ($290) or detention for 15 days. The criminal code states such an obstruction is punishable with a fine up to 7,900 manat ($2,300) or one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home. If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison. According to the criminal code, the fine is calculated as five to 10 average monthly wages (3,950 to 7,900 manat – $1,100-$2,300).

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

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

Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 15,800 to 23,700 manat ($4,500-$6,800).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

Military-age Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to be arrested and imprisoned for refusing military service. As of the end of the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service. According to Forum 18, on January 7, a court in the eastern Lebap Province sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Azamatjan Narkulyev to one year in prison for refusing compulsory military service, and in March, a court in the southeastern town of Bayramaly handed down a one-year sentence to Jehovah’s Witness Muhammetali Saparmyradov for the same offense. Forum 18 also reported that Jehovah’s Witness Bahtiyar Atahanov from Turkmenabat was jailed in July by a court in Tejen for four years, which it said was the longest jail term known to have been handed to a conscientious objector; the authorities deemed him a soldier committing medical fraud to avoid military service after forcibly conscripting him.

On March 29, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) adopted a decision finding that the government had violated the rights of two Jehovah’s Witnesses former prisoners of conscience, Vladimir Nuryllayev and Aibek Salayev in a 2014 case. Nuryllayev and Salayev were wrongly imprisoned on pornography charges, according to UNHRC. Salayev said he was subjected to numerous beatings and threats while in pretrial detention. Also, on March 29, the UNHRC adopted a decision finding that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witness Arslan Dawletow (Dovletov), a conscientious objector in a 2013 incident. These were the eleventh and twelfth UNHRC decisions finding that the country had violated the rights to religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses annual report published in December stated there were numerous incidents of police brutality, intimidation, and house searches of Witnesses. Police reportedly harassed, interrogated, and pressured the Witnesses, even threatening to “arrange an accident” if they did not renounce their faith. The report said that officials charged members of the Witnesses under the administrative code with the “production, import, export, distribution of religious literature.” On February 8, a village official in Lebap Province stated that a complaint had been received and police escorted a male Witness to the police station, where several law enforcement officers were waiting, including a district inspector and a criminal investigation officer. The officers interrogated him, searched his house, and seized personal belongings. The report said they took him back to the police station and threatened to push a pole with the national flag attached down his throat in an attempt to force him to kiss the flag. On March 15, he was summoned to the Carjew District Court and fined $55.

On February 5, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Witness was called to her daughter’s principal’s office in the Balkan Region. In the office, a law enforcement officer criticized her religious beliefs and threatened to fine her $832. The officer ordered the mother to stop teaching her child her religious beliefs and photographed the mother and daughter.

Forum 18 reported on its website that in Lebap Province on December 26, police raided a private home where a group of Protestant women had gathered for a Christmas celebration. Officers reportedly searched the home, seized telephones, and questioned the women at a police station. Forum 18 reported the women had not been fined. The status of more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabat who had previously been reported incarcerated in Ovadan Depe Prison was unclear at year’s end.

The status of more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabat who had previously been reported incarcerated in Ovadan Depe Prison was unclear at year’s end.

Unlike previous years, local human rights groups did not report surveillance of Muslim groups and religious minorities. According to local religious community members and international advocacy groups, members of some Christian organizations faced harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. They reported that security services interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities. Some members also reported that security officials interrogated their friends and family members, asking about the members’ religious activities. In one case, local security forces continuously harassed the pastor of a Christian group in the city of Turkmenabat and interrogated his friends and business associates. Eventually, the security forces threatened to arrest his friends unless the pastor ceased his religious activities. The pastor fled the country.

A member of a Christian group reported that on August 29 a Turkmenabat resident was interrogated by local security forces regarding the religious activities of the resident’s Christian relative. The resident was allegedly threatened in order to make the relative stop holding services and preaching. The member said that this situation was common among members of her group.

Christian groups reported that the Turkmen who converted from Islam experienced government scrutiny and were discriminated against. For example, converts were denied government jobs or fired from jobs based on their religion.

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

Some registered and unregistered Christian groups reported that their venue rentals would be canceled at the last minute or that plainclothes “officials” would appear at the venues and prevent the groups from gathering. Other registered and unregistered Christian groups reported no problems with the rental of venues. Religious groups reported the fewest issues with obtaining venues in Ashgabat. Finding venues in the regional capitals was sometimes more difficult and attempts to meet outside the major cities met with the most official resistance.

Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children. Some groups sought official approval of such activities even if they did not believe that approval was required, in order to assure the events would not be disrupted.

The government provided funding for 160 citizens to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage. The government reported that 2,133 persons self-funded their Hajj travel while a local media source reported that 2,242 pilgrims self-funded.

Two religious groups reported that, after attempting to do so for one to three years, they were finally successful in reregistering their organizations as required by law. Other groups reported their attempts to register or reregister had stalled due to onerous requirements such as the need to include petitions with personal information, an ambiguous approval process, overlapping bureaucratic responsibilities, general unresponsiveness from the government, and intentional obfuscation on the part of the government . One common complaint was the requirement for an organization’s legal address to be separate from the place of worship. This requirement, which was not official but nonetheless widely imposed, posed a burden of renting an offsite office location as a legal address, a burden some of the smaller and less financially endowed organizations were unable to meet.

Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent or severely limit the importation of and access to religious literature although some groups were successful in importing literature. Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s opaque procedures for seeking the approval of religious literature made it extremely difficult. The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language.

One Christian church reported that it successfully imported 50 copies of the Bible, 25 in Russian and 25 in Turkmen. While multiple churches reported success in importing Bibles, they were only able to import a small number of books and the imports could not exceed the number of registered members of the church.

Forum 18 reported that in January, security officials at Ashgabat Airport prevented a citizen from boarding an airplane to return to her job in Turkey, stating she had been banned from leaving the country. In December 2018, Forum 18 said that security personnel at the airport detained her because she was bringing back copies of the Quran. Officers seized the copies of the Quran and held her at the airport for 24 hours. “The police officer asked no questions, but the men in civilian clothes asked questions one after the other,” the woman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), according to Forum 18. She said the two men shouted at her: “Aren’t you ashamed bringing such books with you, you’re a woman! So you’re trying to bring in religious/political propaganda!” Once she was released, local security officers also questioned her in Lebap Region. According to Forum 18, the Migration Service in Ashgabat refused to explain why she was prevented from leaving the country.

During the year, the Muftiate of Turkmenistan published two religious books: “Prayer book (teaches you how to pray, 2017)” and “Fasting Book (teaches you how to fast, 2019).” They were available in local bookstores, making it the first time religious books were made available in a government bookstore in at least six years, according to local observers.

Members of various religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes. Some of the groups reported that landlords feared government reprisal if they leased or rented properties to be used as places of worship. Some groups reported that they had secured properties only to have the landlords renege on the contacts after being instructed by the government. Other groups stated that attempts to purchase land or property to use as a place of worship were stymied by intentional government obfuscation or flat denial. Registered and unregistered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.

On January 8, RFE/RL reported that persons who practiced Islam in Lebap and Dashoguz Provinces during working hours were prevented from doing so by local security forces. The report said that government employees were threatened with termination if they practiced Islam at work and were questioned by authorities over their religion.

RFE/RL reported on January 30 that security services did not allow high school students to attend Friday prayer at local mosques in Ashgabat. The parents of these students reported that local security services dressed in civilian clothing prevented high school students from entering mosques.

On February 5, Forum 18 reported that police in Ashgabat and Lebap Provinces forced men under 40 to shave their beards and mustaches as they were allegedly viewed as extremist Wahhabis. Reports stated that police conducted a similar campaign in September.

According to a May 10 report on RFE’s Turkmen Service, the muftiate and state-controlled media did not announce the beginning of Ramadan, and few people in the country observed the fast during Ramadan. Forum 18 reported that some Muslims said they feared the police or security services would brand them as “extremists” if they were widely known to be observing the Ramadan fast.

According to a report in May on RFE/RL, religious sermons in the country’s state-controlled mosques often contained language praising the president and wishing him health and success. An RFE/RL correspondent who attended prayers in several mosques in Ashgabat said that one imam called on his congregation to love the president and to pray for the downfall of his foes. “May Allah save [the president] from all misfortunes and may his enemies fall at his feet,” the correspondent recalled the imam saying on May 17.

Mosques were under construction in Tejen and in Turkmenabat at year’s end. The theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. The MNB reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program. It was not possible to study theological subjects other than state-approved Islamic theology. Women remained banned from the program.

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

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

Unlike previous years, leaders of religious groups stated they could travel abroad during the year.

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

According to the official government newspaper Neytral’nyy Turkmenistan, on September 14, during an extended Cabinet of Ministers meeting, Prosecutor General Batyr Atdayev reported on corruption and bribery at the muftiate. Reportedly, the chief specialist of the mufti’s administration, Rovshen Allaberdiyev, chief specialist of the human resources department at the Muftiate Muhametmyrat Gurbangeldiyev, and chief specialist of the department conducting liaison with religious organizations at the Cabinet of Ministers Gurbanberdi Nursahedov took bribes from September 2018 to July 2019 from individuals who wanted to participate in the Hajj. All three were arrested and their property confiscated, including money and four apartments.

Opposition media continued to report that, despite the quota of approximately 5,000 pilgrims authorized by the Saudi government, the government restricted the number of Hajj pilgrims to the number that could be carried onboard a Turkmenistan Airlines Boeing 777. A government media website, however, reported that 2,242 citizens self-funded their travel.

In September and November the MOJ conducted roundtable meetings with leaders of registered and unregistered religious organizations. Many religious groups stated this was a productive meeting and a small sign of progress, but continued to experience an either poor or complete lack of response to inquiries. Outside of the roundtable meetings and direct communication with the ministries, religious groups have no official methods of advocacy.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Minority religious groups said persons who are not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox continued to report harassment, such as public shaming, by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Members of registered Christian groups continued to report hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation. Religious leaders and others stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even outward expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported continued societal prejudices against religious groups that were not part of the Sunni Muslim majority.

Persons who joined non-Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox religious groups reported continuing societal criticism. Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minority groups.

Between September 2018 and May 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that unknown individuals distributed leaflets in Russian and Turkmen containing defamatory statements about the Witnesses. The Witnesses stated that the “leaflets included slanderous material designed to incite hatred, but they also targeted individual Witnesses and included personal data, photographs, names, birth dates and addresses.” Officials took no action to stop these distributions.

According to Christian community leaders, Muslims who converted to Christianity faced pressure from families, friends, and local communities to return to their former faith.

Forum 18 reported the level of societal harassment again increased for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who stated they continued to be treated with suspicion and scrutiny by fellow citizens.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. These included the legal status of conscientious objectors, Turkmenistan’s listing as a “Country of Particular Concern,” the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. U.S. officials engaged counterparts both in Turkmenistan and the U.S.-Turkmenistan Annual Bilateral Conference in Washington, D.C. The Ambassador, personally in meetings, and the embassy, via diplomatic notes, requested that President Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors.

In October the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom sent a letter to President Berdimuhamedov urging him to “take the concrete steps necessary to bring Turkmenistan’s laws and practices on religion into line with international standards…” and “…allow us to remove Turkmenistan from the CPC list.”

Embassy officers met on a regular basis with eleven minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedoms. Topics discussed with these groups included: the status and challenges of the groups’ registration and reregistration, the groups’ ability to secure a permanent place of worship, the requirement to keep a legal address in a location physically separate from the place of worship, the challenges of importing religious literature, harassment of members by both government and nongovernment entities, restrictions on proselytizing, the religious groups’ relations with the government, interreligious cooperation, the ability of clerics to access prisoners and military personnel, and the organizations’ ability to carry out educational and charity activities. Outreach to majority Muslim communities remained difficult due to government restrictions, government control of Islamic clergy and institutions, and fear of government reprisal for speaking with foreign officials.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”