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. On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled as unconstitutional the blanket restriction on religious membership among law enforcement in the Law on Police Service. Following the ruling, a police officer dismissed in 2018 for his religious affiliation was reinstated in his position. Societal debate continued concerning government plans to review the public school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, which was in progress at the end of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the hostilities, the government declared martial law, under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. Most of the restrictions were lifted December 2. In the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists, numerous incidents of neglect, destruction, and desecration of religious sites were reported. The Azerbaijani government stated 63 of the 67 mosques in these territories had been destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. Some mosques were reportedly used to house livestock, including pigs. International journalists visiting these territories following the fall fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.
Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media, although many reported a decrease in negative commentaries in mid-November after the end of intensive fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to observers, anti-Semitism increased in the country after Israeli-supplied weapons were used by Azerbaijan during the conflict. The Holocaust and Genocide Memorial – a memorial in downtown Yerevan marking the Holocaust and mass killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey – was vandalized on two occasions under unknown circumstances. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were no instances of verbal harassment towards the group’s members during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year. Sources stated that societal and family pressure remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than the Armenian Apostolic faith.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual members of the Muslim community, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials engaged government officials and civil society representatives to discuss the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics; Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics; Orthodox Christians; and 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 December 2019, 97 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent other, and 1 percent none. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.
According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred.
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, but 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 ($390) 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 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 course in the history of the Armenian Church (HAC) 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 the 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. Changes to the labor code, adopted by the National Assembly on June 2, authorize up to four days of unpaid leave for observing national and religious holidays or remembrance days, regardless of religious affiliation.
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 ($390 to $970) to prison terms of between three and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face 2017 charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in the country. He was held in pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in 2018. On July 17, the Court of Appeals rejected two of the 2019 appeals filed by the Baha’i community against the NSS in connection with concerns over surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest. The Baha’i appeal stated the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil the community’s office as well as the community secretary and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. The community’s appeal of these decisions with the Court of Cassation remained pending by year’s end. At year’s end, Manasyan’s trial was also ongoing.
According to sources, throughout the year, Narek Malyan, the founder of the initiative Veto, and his supporters continued to harass the Yezidi Center for Human Rights and its founder, Sashik Sultanyan, as part of their broader online campaign of harassment of Open Society Foundations-Armenia, a donor organization of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights. On September 8, Malyan stated he applied to the NSS to launch a criminal case against Sultanyan, accusing him of inciting national religious enmity, based on an interview Sultanyan gave to an Iraqi-based media outlet in which he discussed the issues faced by the Yezidi community in the country. The NSS launched a criminal case based on what civil society organizations called a fake and baseless accusation. While authorities did not charge Sultanyan as a defendant in the case, according to civil society, at year’s end, the NSS continued to investigate him and the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, hindering the organization’s activities and harassing those affiliated with the NGO.
Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.
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. There were anecdotal reports again stating that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.
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 that reportedly occurred during the classes, and they said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. One Christian group stated that while religious education was important, it should include “all religions that are traditional to Armenia.”
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.
In June, the government’s announced plans to remove HAC courses from the mandatory school curriculum, generating public debate. While many individuals, including parents, teachers, and AAC clergy, said the course helped to develop a value system based on Armenian identity, others said schools should remain secular and moral values could be developed outside the HAC course. At year’s end, sources stated that a major rethinking of the entire school curriculum by the government remained in process.
The NGO Eurasia Partnership Foundation again stated its concerns about the existing HAC course and how its content affected the rights of religious minority groups. The foundation also welcomed the efforts of the Ministry of Education to develop new criteria for public school curriculums, stating that many of the foundation’s suggestions to address existing concerns were taken into consideration in the drafting process.
Although official figures for the 2020-2021 school year were not available, during the 2019-2020 school year, 74 schools included an optional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.
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. The state of emergency announced on March 16 due to COVID-19 prohibited the “organization of religious rites and participating therein,” ending clergy visits to penitentiaries until the quarantine was lifted in September and penitentiaries started providing limited religious services that adhered to strict protection measures.
On February 11, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2019 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher became a subject of discrimination based on her religion when her instruction hours were reduced after parents of students accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The center requested rescission of the 2017 decision reducing her classes, restoration of the number of classes she taught, payment of back wages, and acknowledgement of the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. According to the court ruling, the teacher was reinstated to her former position and paid back wages, but the court denied that discrimination had taken place.
On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the article of the Law on Police Service that contained a blanket restriction on membership in a religious organization was unconstitutional. In the ruling, the Constitutional Court also stated that membership in religious organizations – as a form of freedom of expression and a way to exercise the right of freedom of association – is a right that may not be denied regardless of service in any militarized body, including police.
On June 4, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2018 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of police officer Edgar Karapetyan, who was dismissed from his position 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. Karapetyan was reinstated in his position and paid back wages.
Although there was no mechanism for enforcing 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.
Beginning in August, some foreign citizen volunteers at local churches were denied requests to renew their residence permits as authorities applied a new interpretation of related laws and procedures. Government officials said churches could start paying their volunteers and apply for work papers or the volunteers could leave the country and return, allowing them to remain in the country for an additional 180 days. The provision affected some churches that decided to limit their volunteers’ service to 180 days.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the group halted construction of churches due to COVID-19 and therefore did not face difficulties building places of worship, unlike previous years. They largely suspended construction during the COVID-19 pandemic, although some minor renovations were completed. At year’s end, one case dating from 2016 was pending before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Armenian Missionary Association of America continued its construction projects without interference and was planning additional construction the following spring.
At year’s end, 127 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 129 in 2019. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals, local utility companies, park maintenance services, boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. During the fall conflict, the government allowed men in the alternative civilian service program to continue in that program. Additionally, in nearly all cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served in the military prior to their conversion and were called up for service during the conflict were released from service after stating that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses or providing relevant documentation. 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). Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Armenia-supported de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities allowed them to worship in the region without hindrance but denied them registration as a religious group, as well as the right to conscientious objection to military service. They also reported all Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated to Armenia, and none were forced to serve in the military.
According to AAC spokesperson Vahram Melikyan, following its formation, the working group on government-AAC relations held ongoing meetings to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the spiritual health of the country’s citizens.
The government’s National Security Strategy, adopted in July, recognized the importance of the Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, and Christianity in the formation of national values. The strategy recognized respect and tolerance toward other peoples, nations, and religions as a national value. It emphasized the important role played by the three churches within the context of Armenia-diaspora relations and the government’s commitment to fully protecting the rights and freedoms of every person residing in the country. The strategy also stressed the importance of fully integrating ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups into every area of public life and the system of state governance. The strategy also stated the country’s commitment to protecting the right to life of ethnic, religious, and racial groups and their members as well as the prevention of genocide.
During 44 days of intensive fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.
The Azerbaijani government reported 63 of the 67 mosques in the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists were completely destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. There were also reports of desecration of Muslim religious sites. Videos circulated on social media showed pigs in a mosque in Zangilan with defaced interior religious calligraphy; livestock in the Juma Mosque in Aghdam; and pigs in a mosque in Mamar, in the region of Qubadli. Armenian observers said the videos were staged or stated livestock entered the mosques of their own accord. International journalists visiting the territories following the intensive fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.
After Azerbaijan reestablished control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government accused the Armenia-supported de facto authorities who previously controlled the territory of seeking to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Azerbaijani heritage. For example, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in Shusha renovated the Yukhari Govhar Aga Mosque with Iranian funding and labeled it a “Persian mosque.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers who largely attributed this to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were again 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. During the intensive fall fighting, the number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial were defaced on two occasions, first on October 14 with paint, and again on October 22, when a fire was lit with wood around the bronze monument, resulting in discoloration and damage. Members of the Jewish community repaired the damage.
Other religious groups reported incidents of harassment during the year. A religious volunteer reported a car with a passenger drove up next to him when he was returning to his residence in Artashat, showing him what appeared to be a weapon through the window. On several occasions, persons walking past religious volunteers in Gyumri reportedly slapped them. The volunteers did not report the incidents to police.
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 Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. The case remained pending at year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, unlike previous years, there were no incidents of verbal harassment toward the group’s members publicly manifesting their religious beliefs during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year.
One Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, served 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, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and political party representatives. Embassy officials engaged government officials from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the Office of the Human Rights Defender to discuss the impact of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted 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 individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. On several occasions, the Ambassador publicly underscored the importance of fostering an inclusive society in which a diversity of viewpoints and beliefs is welcomed and encouraged. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom with civil society, including addressing religious discrimination faced by minority religious groups and the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites that were significant to Armenian communities.
The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities; 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. In two separate decisions in January and June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of five individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay compensation. According to Forum 18, an international human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), three of the five were arrested for gathering to study the works of the late Turkish Sunni theologian Said Nursi. One of the men said authorities physically abused him during his detention. In September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission it had violated the rights of multiple Muslim individuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship or religious study at members’ homes. Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after a July 2018 attack on the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee and the subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities alleged those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Civil society activists and human rights groups considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated and estimated 43 individuals remained in prison at year’s end in connection with the events in Ganja. Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), which the government characterized as an extremist group. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the incarceration of MUM members to be politically motivated. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. According to these groups, the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 41 to 48 at the end of the year. Religious communities continued to express frustration that communities with fewer than 50 members were not allowed to legally register. The government stated that reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added “restriction of freedom” (i.e., probation) to preexisting penalties that included fines and imprisonment for publishing or distributing material with religious content without government approval. The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region or surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the conflict, Human Rights Watch reported two separate attacks on October 8 on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha by Azerbaijani forces. In connection with attacks on and vandalism of religious sites following the Fall fighting, Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives expressed concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage as the sites passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control.
Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. Groups viewed as “nontraditional,” however, were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers urged government officials to address longstanding issues with the registration process for smaller religious communities and to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups and civil society to discuss religious freedom in the country. Embassy officers also had consultations with theologians.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 data from the State Committee on Religious Associations in Azerbaijan (SCWRA) (the most recent available), 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, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.
Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state 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.
According to the code of administrative offenses, an administrative offense is applicable to nonviolent crimes. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.
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 contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or 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.” 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 believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that 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; 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 ranging from 15 years to life.
The law 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.
Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country. The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain 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 ($2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
The 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. Punishments for “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900 and $4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of people “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manats ($4,100 and $5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.
There is no 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 study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. 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. 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 acts; 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 parliament. 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 a position 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.
Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.
On June 4, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of four individuals whom it arrested between 2013 and 2015 by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Forum 18, authorities arrested the four – Taleh Bagirov (aka Bagirzade), Zakir Mustafayev, Ismayil Mammadov, and Eldaniz Hajiyev – for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The government acknowledged the length of pretrial detention had been excessive. The ECHR ordered the government to pay each of the men 3,000 euros ($3,700) in compensation. It awarded Mustafayev an additional 500 euros ($610) for costs associated with applying to the court. Representatives of the men said the compensation was too low and wanted the court to continue hearing the case, but it refused. The ECHR ruling in June followed a similar decision by the same court on January 16 concerning the extended detention of Hajiyev, Mammadov, and a third man, Revan Sabzaliyev, arrested in April 2014 when they met to study the works of Nursi. Hajiyev and Mammadov were also among the four men included in ECHR’s June decision. Bagirov said authorities tortured him during his detention. In 2015, authorities arrested Bagirov on charges of extremism following a police raid of a home where he was preaching. Five attendees and two officers died in the raid.
In nine cases concluded in September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the rights of multiple individuals to freedom of religion or belief. One case involved seven Muslims who were detained when they met at a home in Baku in 2015 to discuss the works of Nursi. In another case, authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met at a member’s home in Ganja in 2010. The government paid 4,400 euros ($5,400) in compensation to the Muslims and 4,000 euros ($4,900) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses following the decisions. In these cases, as well as in earlier cases where the government admitted culpability, the victims said they were concerned by both the low level of compensation the government offered and what they saw as its failure to change the laws to ensure similar violations did not occur again. Forum 18 said there were 34 cases alleging violations of freedom of religion or belief involving 61 individuals and five religious communities that were pending before the ECHR at year’s end.
Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after the July 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and the subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government’s account of events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed hade not resisted 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. With the exception of Yunis Safarov, who was accused of trying to shoot Valiyev, civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. They estimated 43 individuals connected to the events in Ganja remained in prison at year’s end.
Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities stated the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. Charges against MUM members included illegal possession of weapons, violation of the COVID-19 quarantine regime, and “resisting police” (a broad offense that includes not obeying police orders). As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of believers who were political prisoners ranged from 41 to 48, compared with 45 to 55 in 2019.
On March 13, police detained MUM member Elvin Muradov. On September 25, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to two years and three months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. On June 22, police detained MUM member Shamil Hasanov. On October 27, the Binagadi District Court sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. During the year, authorities placed multiple members of MUM under administrative arrest for allegedly violating the COVID-19 quarantine regime and “resisting police.” For example, on March 21, the Sabunchu District Court sentenced Samir Babayev to 30 days of administrative arrest. On April 12, the Khatai District Court sentenced Hikmat Agayev to 25 days of administrative arrest. On June 10, the Imishli District Court sentenced Alik Aslanov to 15 days of administrative arrest.
On April 6, a presidential pardon released a number of individuals over the age of 65 because of concerns over COVID-19-related risks to elderly prisoners. The released individuals included two religious activists whom human rights advocates considered political prisoners, including one person arrested after a large November 2015 police operation targeting members of MUM.
Some minority Christian communities said the SCWRA made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. The groups said there were fewer instances of officials raiding the premises of religious communities or detaining and fining individuals in connection with peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs than in years past. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were no detentions related to practice of their religion during the year, compared with 18 in 2019. They attributed the lack of incidents to improved relations with the SCWRA and their reduced public proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government did not implement alternative military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution, or make any draft law public. According to Forum 18, on March 30, ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov recommended parliament adopt an alternative service law. In April 2019, 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. Mehdiyev and Abilov filed an appeal with the ECHR, on which the court had not ruled as of year’s end.
During the year, the SCWRA registered 14 new religious communities (12 Muslim and two Christian), compared with 34 religious communities registered in 2019 (31 Muslim and three Christian). There were a total 963 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.
The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.
The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. For example, Baptist communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Forum 18 reported that in January, the SCWRA told the Baptist community in the village of Aliabad, which has been seeking legal status since 1994, that SCWRA had “no objection” to the group meeting once per week for two hours, despite it not having legal status. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.
On September 23, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Baku Administrative Court, which on January 30, 2019 declined to review the complaint of former parliament employee Rahim Akhundov. Akhundov stated that in December 2018 he was forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not resign voluntarily. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home, and informed parliamentary leadership that he held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.
On August 28, authorities did not permit Shia believers to gather in mosques or mosque courtyards to mark the Ashura religious commemoration because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions that applied to all public gatherings, regardless of the purpose. Police detained numerous individuals in Shamkir, Yevlakh, Barda, and Lankaran for trying to observe Ashura in spite of the prohibition on gatherings. Judges sentenced at least six individuals to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days.
Forum 18 said government officials sometimes refused to give birth certificates to Georgian-speaking families for children with Georgian first names or to Baptists wishing to give their children biblical names. According to Forum 18, without a birth certificate, a child may not attend kindergarten or school, be treated in a hospital, or travel abroad. The NGO said that in the early part of the year, following a one-year delay, officials granted a birth certificate to a family in Aliabad who had named their son Daniel. An individual close to the family told Forum 18, “The parents chose the name for religious reasons. But officials refused and insisted they choose an Azeri name.”
The SCWRA stated it prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 3,680 and the publication of six books out of 205. By comparison, in 2019 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239.
On October 22, the ECHR ruled in the case of Jehovah’s Witness Nina Gridneva. The court dismissed the case because the parties had reached a settlement in which the government recognized it had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and committed to pay her 4,500 euros ($5,500) as compensation. In 2010, police stopped Gridneva while she was distributing religious literature on the street and officers seized the materials. A local court subsequently fined her for distributing “illegal” religious literature.
The ECHR ruled on February 20 that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses by banning three of their publications from importation and distribution in 2008. The ECHR ordered the government to pay compensation for the violation and refund court fees Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred trying to challenge the bans in local courts.
According to Shia Rights Watch, in June, officials demolished the Hazrat Zahra Mosque in Baku, saying the building was condemned, and undertook construction of a new mosque on the same site. The government had attempted to demolish the mosque in 2008; however, due to demonstrations, demolition was postponed.
The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On June 2, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2019. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2019. Some observers stated the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.
The government did not exercise control over Nagorno-Karabakh or the surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting in the fall in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.
Human Rights Watch stated Azerbaijani forces attacked and damaged the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha in two separate incidents on October 8. Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles. There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes. In an October 26 interview, President Aliyev denied purposefully bombing the church, saying it was bombed by accident or was done by the Armenians themselves to frame Azerbaijan. Armenian religious officials accused Azerbaijan forces of desecrating the Holy Savior Cathedral after taking control of the city of Shusha on November 14. Photographs circulated on the internet showed graffiti on the outer walls of the cathedral. Azerbaijani media said the graffiti in the online images had been photoshopped.
Numerous videos circulated during and after the fall fighting that showed attacks on and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. These videos prompted Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to express serious concerns regarding the preservation of the sites as they passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control. Following the ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kalbajar, a territory returned to Azerbaijani control after the fall fighting, fearing its carvings could be destroyed and that without protection the site would become inaccessible. Russian peacekeepers took control of the site immediately following a November 14 call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. President Aliyev’s public claim that “the churches in Kalbajar belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian state” raised concerns among Armenians that Azerbaijan might seek to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Armenian heritage.
Armenian media reported both during and after the fall fighting that representatives of the Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. On November 14, a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.
There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, located in Mekhakavan settlement, including the breaking of the church’s cross. When the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin was constructed in 2017 by Armenia-supported de facto authorities as a military chapel, Azerbaijan formally protested the construction on “occupied lands” in a depopulated area as a violation of international humanitarian law.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “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.
The executive director of the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, Mehman Ismayilov, said that during the year, the foundation provided monthly assistance to 984 Muslim religious figures serving in mosques, including imams and deputy imams, and transferred 100,000 manat ($58,800) to 22 non-Muslim communities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed the government to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues regarding the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the months following the ceasefire arrangement, the Ambassador consistently underscored the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO and international journalists with Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, alternative military service, and relations with SCWRA. Officials also consulted with theologians. In a program intended to empower women involved in work with religious organizations, the embassy sponsored the travel of a group of five female employees working for the SCWRA and CMB to the United States from March 4 to March 13. In the United States, the group met with representatives of different interfaith and religious organizations, visited different houses of worship, and learned about the role of women in American religious communities.
The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerance and Diversity Institute (Tolerance Institute) stated that prosecutors continued to fail to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes. NGOs criticized the government during the COVID-19 state of emergency between March 22 and May 22 for allowing the GOC exceptions from restrictions on in-person religious services while not responding to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on applying restrictions. The government did not approve the registration application of any new religious group. It rejected the application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. Parliament again failed to pass legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law under which the GOC received exclusive tax and property privileges. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Religious leaders criticized parliament for passing amendments in May that grant only the GOC ownership rights to state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Following the December 2019 election of Mufti Adam Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, AMAG education department head Rezo Mikeladze, AMAG press center head Otar Nadiradze, and two other leaders within the organization resigned, and Mikeladze made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the State Security Service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Mikeladze and Nadiradze subsequently rejoined AMAG. The Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches and some Muslim groups reported continued difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. NGOs continued to state there was bias in public schools favoring Georgian Orthodox religious teachings, although the government took some steps to involve human rights groups in the textbook selection process. NGOs and some religious groups continued to criticize legislation that excluded some religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from receiving compensation for damages suffered during the Soviet era.
According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russia-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto authorities in both areas continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia. Both the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox clergy from entering the occupied territory. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, religiously motivated crimes declined compared to 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity. During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared with 44 cases in 2019. The Public Defender’s Office received seven complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination during the year, compared with 19 complaints in 2019. Two of these complaints involved violence. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) obtained convictions for two individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance, and a case against a third was pending at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said attacks against members declined because the group, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach or door-to-door evangelism. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight incidents against the group, its members, or Kingdom Halls, including one involving violence, compared with 20 in 2019. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared to prior years in classifying crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as motivated by religious intolerance. The Public Defender’s Office and religious minorities continued to state there was widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. The NGO Media Development Foundation documented 20 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media by media figures, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 in 2019. In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili said the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church “have no merit.” In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told a news outlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main source of COVID-19 in the city of Zugdidi. In December, the Tolerance Institute condemned as anti-Semitic a sermon by Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli in which he referred to nonbelievers as “a lineage of infidels.” The Georgian ambassador to Israel said Gamrekeli’s words had been misinterpreted, and the GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior Church leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In November, the Secretary of State met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi to discuss the promotion and protection of religious freedom. The embassy continued to support long-term programming to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and promote greater integration.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups, such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Russian Orthodox Church, Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azeris are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast; both groups are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in the south-central region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the Armenian Apostolic Church and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Reliable information from the Russia-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent as Muslim, 8 percent as atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent as followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census conducted by de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russia-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include Muslims and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the Georgian Orthodox patriarch, exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies. The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity of public law (legal entity) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To register as a legal entity, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the forest code granting the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.
According to a 2010 Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.
Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.
The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.
By law, the PGO, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities. The Council of Religions has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.
The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the PGO, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power and abuse of office perpetrated by representatives of law enforcement and public officials if they are committed by use of force or violate the personal dignity of a person and involve discriminatory elements or features, including religious motives. Following the investigation, the service refers these cases to the PGO for prosecution. Since its creation in May 2019, the service has not received any information on a religiously motivated crime.
SARI’s mandate is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions regarding approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations. SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC and to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as legal entities for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Tolerance Institute again stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the PGO continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (i.e., a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) and to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to the public’s and religious groups’ adherence to government-imposed restrictions, public religious activity declined. NGOs said SARI was unresponsive to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on restrictions relating to in-person religious services, while it granted the GOC exceptions to or not did not enforce restrictions, thereby enabling the Church to continue hosting in-person religious services, including Orthodox Easter services on April 19.
The NAPR did not register any new religious organization as a legal entity during the year. It rejected the registration application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. The NAPR found the group’s legal documentation was insufficient and requested additional documentation. As of year’s end, the group’s registration process remained suspended pending presentation of additional materials.
Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Muslims were allowed to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services for their religion upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.
Parliament failed to take action during the year to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the law was unconstitutional and mandating parliament make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018.
On May 13, the Constitutional Court announced its decision that the case brought by nine religious organizations claiming the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purpose violated the constitutional provision guaranteeing equality before the law had merit and would be admitted for substantive consideration. The court had not started this review at year’s end.
On February 20, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether to accept for substantive consideration a case brought by nine religious organizations challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. As of year’s end, the court had not reached a decision.
The Tolerance Institute and other NGOs criticized as unconstitutional and discriminatory amendments passed in May to the Forest Code that granted only the GOC ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader and selectively transferring land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. A number of Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization. Following the December 25, 2019, election of Mufti Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, head of the AMAG education department Mikeladze resigned and made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the state security service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Three other leaders – press center head Nadiradze, advisor to the mufti Temur Gorgadze, and publishing house head Gela Gogitidza – also resigned. During the year, Mikeladze and Nadiradze returned to AMAG, and Mikeladze continued to hold senior offices in the education department. Mikeladze and Nadiradze made no statements addressing their departure or return.
At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on the Armenia Apostolic Church’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as the GOC’s property a church that the Armenian Apolstolic Church claimed to own since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had not officially responded to any of the Armenian Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Armenian Apostolic Church said the only communication from SARI during the year was SARI chairman Zaza Vashakmadze telling the group the issue was “under consideration.” The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. SARI said the Armenian Apostolic Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.
Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period and, in some cases, said the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship that had been converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.
The Kutaisi Court of Appeal held hearings in February and July on the Batumi city government’s appeal connected to its 2017 decision to deny the local Muslim community a permit to build a mosque but did not reach a decision by year’s end. In 2019, the Batumi City Court ruled that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The lower court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Batumi city government rescinded the 3,000 lari ($920) fine it had imposed in 2017 for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land, pending the outcome of the appeal. The NGO Human Rights Education Monitoring Center (EMC) described the status of the case as “frozen.”
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 1.91 million lari ($584,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, compared with 2.3 million lari ($703,000) in 2019.
As of year’s end, the Supreme Court failed to act on a 2018 EMC appeal of a lower court ruling that the MOIA had not discriminated against Muslims when it failed to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school that was under construction in Kobuleti, near Batumi, in 2014. The vandalism followed anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests concerning the school. As a result of the protests, the local municipality refused to connect sewage and water systems. In 2018, a lower court ruled the municipality had to connect the school to utility services, but the municipality took no action, and the boarding school remained incomplete as of year’s end, without water and sewage services.
Tolerance Institute representatives continued to state that religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. Prior to schools being closed in February due to COVID-19 restrictions, NGOs and non-Georgian Orthodox organizations, such as the EMC, reported Georgian Orthodox clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government shifted the majority of schools to online instruction, and there were no reports of religious discrimination in schools during the year. The Tolerance Institute stated that students were also hesitant to report cases of religious discrimination in schools for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials. The institute also reported the process for selecting textbooks became more inclusive, with the Ministry of Education inviting human rights experts to review the content for discriminatory or biased language that favored the GOC.
During the year, the Tolerance Institute represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who, due to their religious beliefs, could not take entrance examinations on Saturday and were denied a date change by the government. The institute filed suit with the Tbilisi City Court, and the court ruled that the government was obligated to reschedule the examination to accommodate the applicants’ religious beliefs. The court stressed the importance of freedom of religion and respecting the needs of religious minorities in the context of the right to equality. The Equality Department of the Public Defender’s Office issued a general proposal to the Ministry of Education, based on information provided by the Tolerance Institute, recommending the ministry take into account the needs of religious minorities. Although the applicants successfully passed the examinations and enrolled in university, the case remained pending at year’s end, as the Tolerance Institute asked the court to find that the ministry had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari (22 cents) for “moral damage.”
During the year, the government through SARI allocated 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC and 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) to approved non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the totalitarian Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) was distributed as follows: 2.20 million lari ($673,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($183,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($91,700) to the Jewish community. SARI said the remaining one million lari ($306,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” This was a decrease from the 2019 amounts: 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($841,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 550,000 lari ($168,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($245,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.
The MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted eight training sessions during the year – five total in Tbilisi and Batumi and three online. At these events, it trained 139 MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigation.
In October, the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions produced its annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country. The report identified areas needing improvement and made specific recommendations in the following categories: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crimes motivated by intolerance; state policy on freedom of religion; property issues; border crossing by religious groups; the import of religious literature; police conduct in areas with ethnic and religious minorities; education; reflecting diversity; confronting hate speech and anti-Western propaganda; and the role of the media. During the October conference to discuss the report’s recommendations, many NGO and religious leaders said they were disappointed that the council’s recommendations were similar or identical to those it had made in past years, with no improvement or progress on the issues identified.
The Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the administrative control of the central government. Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain. According to the “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone has the right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. It forbids the formation of associations or parties or activities that incite religious discord. The “constitution” of South Ossetia guarantees freedom of conscience and faith but states, “Orthodox Christianity and traditional South Ossetian beliefs represent one of the foundations of the national self-awareness of the Ossetian people.”
The Russian Orthodox Church and the GOC both formally recognized the Orthodox churches in Abkhazia as well as in South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto authorities continued to restrict Georgian Orthodox clergy’s accessing these areas. According to media reports from online news outlets, such as Netgazeti and Resonance Daily, as well as experts on the region, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, while others wished to subordinate them to the Russian Orthodox Church, and still others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued be able to rent space for kingdom halls in Abkhazia.
Representatives of the GOC remained unable to travel to or conduct services in Russia-occupied Abkhazia, including in the majority-ethnic Georgian Gali District. According to GOC representatives, the district’s ethnic Georgian population continued to have to travel to Tbilisi-administered territory to celebrate religious holidays.
The government and GOC continued to say the de facto authorities damaged historical Orthodox religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage, but they did not cite specific examples.
According to GOC representatives, de facto authorities allowed the GOC to conduct services in South Ossetia, although the de facto authorities said such services were illegal. There were Georgian Orthodox churches in the ethnic-Georgian-majority district of Akhalgori. SARI again reported it was not allowed to enter the occupied territory. It said it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia and that the status of most properties in the territory was unknown. According to a report from Amnesty International released in 2019, residents in and outside of South Ossetia were impeded from visiting a number of churches and cemeteries within South Ossetia located near the administrative boundary line with the rest of Georgia because of the threat of detention by Russian guards. The report said residents were unable to visit the village cemetery in Kveshi and were impeded from visiting eight other cemeteries in South Ossetia near the administrative boundary line.
GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia continued to pressure the Orthodox churches in the territory to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity, crimes committed against religious groups declined compared with 2019. The MOIA investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared to 44 cases in 2019. These included three cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites (compared with 10 in 2019), four cases of persecution (compared with 10 in 2019), and five cases of damage or destruction of property (compared with eight in 2019).
The Public Defender’s Office reported it received seven complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, compared with 19 in 2019. Two of the complaints involved violence; the office did not give further details on these cases. The office stated that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.
The PGO reported it prosecuted three individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance. Two of these individuals were convicted of domestic violence committed due to religious intolerance, and the third case remained pending at year’s end. The PGO reported that in one case, a man slapped his wife during an argument on March 8 because she refused to visit her son’s gravesite due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. On April 23, the Samtredia District Court found the man guilty of domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor and due to religious intolerance, and sentenced him to an 18-month conditional prison sentence. On June 19, on appeal, the Kutaisi Appellate Court increased the man’s conditional prison sentence to two years. On March 1, a man threatened to shoot two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in his apartment building if they did not stop their religious activity and leave the building. The PGO charged the man with persecuting an individual for engaging in religious activity with the aggravated circumstance of threat of violence, and the case was pending trial at the Tbilisi City Court at year’s end.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were fewer attacks against members compared to prior years because the group, in response to COVID-19 restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach, including door-to-door evangelism. At year’s end, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared with 20 in 2019. Of the reported incidents, one involved physical violence, four involved vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and three involved interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses said police sent one of the cases to the PGO for prosecution. Police were still investigating the seven others at year’s end. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared with prior years in classifying crimes as being motivated by religious intolerance, especially in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As of year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on a 2019 case in which an individual verbally insulted, then physically attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. The victim required medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip, and officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health.”
Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property.
Representatives of the Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.
Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishment of places of worship and religious schools.
The Media Development Foundation documented 30 instances during the year of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 such incidents in 2019.
In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili told the news website Georgia and the World, “As soon as this terrible epidemic [of COVID-19] has spread to all continents, all countries should have started intensified praying, but unfortunately, the reverse has happened. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church closed their churches, prohibited praying; although their prayers have no merit anyway, as in the 11th century they swerved from Orthodoxy and embarked on the road of sacrilege.”
There were instances, particularly in Western Georgia, of anti-Islamic rhetoric that took the form of anti-Turkish rhetoric and opposition to perceived “foreign influence.” On February 16, Alliance of Patriots party member Giorgi Kasradze criticized the perceived foreign influence of Turkish Muslims on the country, saying on TV Obiektivi, “They [Turkish Muslims] have tried many times to stage various provocations in this region, including building an Azizie Mosque in the center of Batumi, but 15,000 [Georgian] Muslims, altogether 70,000 people, of whom 15,000 were Muslims, resisted construction of a mosque by Turkish money.”
In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told the news outlet Sakinpormi, “In Zugdidi [City] the main source of coronavirus is the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you noticed how they are concealing this information? Can you imagine the fuss if this disease were spread from the Church congregation? That is the problem – 90 percent of Georgian television networks are belligerent enemies of the Georgian nation, Orthodoxy, and the Georgian state! A national boycott to this offspring of Satan.”
On December 20, Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Gamrekeli delivered a sermon that included a story about the fourth-century saint Ambrose of Milan. In the story, Saint Ambrose argued against punishing those responsible for a pogrom against the Jewish community on the grounds that Jews had not been held fully responsible for killing Christ, desecrating the Holy Land, or blasphemy. In the sermon, Gamrekeli referred to modern-day Jews as individuals who, under the guise of free speech, defamed the Church, and said, “This is not defined by ethnicity – this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” On December 28, the Tolerance Institute issued a statement saying, “Despite the fact that the Bishop refers to the story of Ambrose of Mediolanum, in this context he repeats the narratives of the ‘generation/lineage of infidels’ and ‘fighters against the Church’ in reference to the Jewish people. We consider that citing this particular example and calling Jewish people these derogatory terms (even though attributing them to the life of the saint) reinforces anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes today.” In response to the Tolerance Institute’s statement, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the Metropolitan’s statement, saying his words had been misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable, and the Metropolitan said in the sermon the lessons from the parable should not apply to one ethnicity. The GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the government, including SARI, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the President’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs involved with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the Tolerance Institute, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.
In November, the Secretary of State met with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi and discussed promoting and protecting religious freedom.
The embassy conducted a virtual program for a multiethnic group of young professionals under an exchange program focusing on inclusion, diversity, and equality. The program highlighted, among other things, the importance of freedom of religion. The embassy supported a number of religious freedom projects, including a discussion on human dignity and the GOC that brought together clergy and staff of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate and public figures, nongovernmental human rights organizations, and scholars studying theology and religion with the goal of increasing awareness of human rights within the Church community. Another project aimed to encourage religious leaders of all faiths to promote democracy and foster civic engagement in their communities. The embassy’s English language programs in Marneuli, Akhalkalaki, and Ninotsminda targeted 25 socially disadvantaged students from religious minority groups.
The embassy continued to support the Tolerance Center and the Council of Religions programs that brought together leaders from different faith communities to monitor and advocate for religious freedom and raise public awareness about discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities. The embassy supported the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center’s “Improving Human Rights Conditions for Marginalized Groups through Strategic Litigation” project to protect the rights of minority religious groups through strategic litigation, field work, advocacy, and awareness-raising with regard to problems such as discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in relations with state and private persons, unequal treatment in the recognition of property and construction rights, and hate crimes.
In September, the embassy announced a cultural preservation award to restore the Jvari Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery near Mtskheta (the former capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia) and one of the country’s most iconic cultural sites.
The embassy regularly used social media to highlight meetings with government officials, religious groups, and civil society and events promoting religious tolerance.