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Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. In September, the Supreme Court affirmed the ban on the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country. Authorities continued to investigate NRM members for engaging in banned activities as part of the successor group Towards Freedom, including public demonstrations. According to representatives of their respective groups, immigration authorities denied most asylum applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witness asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. In July, a court upheld an ethnic agitation fine for a Finns Party Member of Parliament (MP), while parliament declined to remove the immunity from prosecution of another Finns Party MP who was being investigated for ethnic agitation concerning comments he made during a parliamentary session that equated Muslim asylum seekers with invasive species. In August, police completed their investigation into anti-Semitic comments made by an MP from the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In August, the Ministry of Interior created a working group dedicated to improving security at religious sites, including synagogues and mosques. In January, a municipal councilor in Polvijarvi from the SDP resigned after posting comments to Facebook questioning whether the Holocaust occurred. In February, the Oulu District Court fined an Oulu city councilor for two counts of ethnic agitation for posting videos online depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings.

Police reported 133 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2019, the most recent statistics available, compared with 155 such incidents in 2018, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019, compared with 35 in 2018. The NRM continued to post anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements online and acted to circumvent the ban of the organization by continuing activities as part of Towards Freedom. There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups. Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, which coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Also in late January, vandals targeted the Israeli embassy and Jewish property, including the Helsinki and Turku synagogues. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. Muslim groups reported a shortage of funds needed to establish houses of worship to match their growing population.

U.S. embassy staff engaged with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, the government’s response to anti-Semitic incidents, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadis seeking asylum. Embassy staff met with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss their shared concerns about the impact of government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and addressed religiously motivated crimes and continuing problems involved in establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minority groups, and interfaith networks.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Finnish government statistics from December 2019, which count only registered members of registered congregations, 68.7 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent (approximately 17,000 individuals) have official membership in Islamic congregations, and 28.5 percent do not identify as belonging to any religious group. The census combines other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and members of the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.4 percent of the population.

Multiple sources indicate the Muslim population has grown rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants. Muslim religious leaders estimate the number of Muslims rose to 100,000 in 2018 (most recent data available), of which approximately 80 percent is Sunni and 20 percent Shia. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated 2.7 percent of the population, or approximately 150,000 persons, were Muslim. According to a survey by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population numbered approximately 65,000 in 2016. According to the Islamic Society of Finland, discrepancies among these sources and between them and official government statistics may occur because only a minority of Muslims register with registered Islamic societies. Apart from Tatars, who emigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as during the Soviet Union period, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

In a report released in October, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research estimated the Jewish population at 1,300.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes “blaspheming against God,” publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months. Authorities have occasionally applied the law, most recently in 2019. The constitution cites the ELC, the only religious group it mentions, stating that “provisions on the organization and administration [of the ELC] are laid down in the Church Act.”

The law prohibits religious discrimination and establishes the position of a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law, investigating individual cases of discrimination, and having the power to issue fines in noncriminal cases. The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling, promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. The ombudsman may also refer cases to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal (NDET), which also enforces fines issued by the ombudsman and assists plaintiffs seeking compensation in court. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the NDET, which may issue binding decisions that may be appealed to the courts or through the district court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of the NDET and the district courts to the higher Administrative Court. Neither the ombudsman nor the NDET has the authority to investigate individual cases of religious discrimination involving employment. Such cases fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.

Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a religious community, a group must have at least 20 members, the public practice of religion as its purpose, and a set of rules to guide its activities. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. A religious group may also acquire legal status by registering as an association with a nonprofit purpose that is not contrary to law or proper behavior. Registered religious groups and nonprofit associations are generally exempt from taxes. According to the MEC, as of 2019 there were approximately 142 registered religious communities, most of which had multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.

All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Finnish Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, currently set at between 1 to 2 percent of a member’s income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.

Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church are eligible to apply for state funds in lieu of the church tax. In addition to receiving the church tax, the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church may also apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements, including ELC and Orthodox congregations, may apply to receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.

The law requires the ELC to maintain public cemeteries using its general allocation from state funds and church taxes and to account for monies used for this purpose. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Digital and Population Data Services Agency. State registrars do this for other persons.

Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12. The religious affiliation of children between the ages of 12 and 17 may only be changed by a joint decision of the child and his or her parents or guardian, and the family must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate the religious affiliation.

All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All students must take courses either in religious studies or ethics, with the choice left up to the student. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Municipalities may arrange for students from different schools to take a combined course to meet this requirement. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics. Students aged 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or the ethics courses. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates. The national and municipal governments fund private, including religiously based, schools. Despite the name, private schools are in fact completely financially dependent on government funding, in order to ensure equitable education nationwide. With the exception of international and foreign-language schools, by law private schools may not charge tuition. They do not practice selective admission based on students’ religion.

Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and on general instruction in ethics. Teachers of religion must have state-mandated training for religious instruction. The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.

By law, conscientious objectors, including those who object on religious grounds, may choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service. Conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.

The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be stunned and killed simultaneously if done pursuant to religious practice. On December 17, the European Union Court of Justice ruled EU member states may impose a requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter and that such a requirement does not infringe on the rights of religious groups.

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

Government Practices

On September 22, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM). The organization was originally banned in 2017 by the Pirkenmaa District Court, but the Supreme Court, while keeping the ban in place, granted the organization the right to appeal the decision in 2019. According to the September ruling, NRM’s activities violated or sought to violate fundamental and human rights protected by the constitution and international human rights treaties. In addition, the Supreme Court found that some of the group’s activities violated the criminal code. Police continued to implement the 2017 ban of the NRM, but the organization continued to demonstrate in public and maintain a website, despite the Supreme Court’s order that it refrain from all activities. The National Bureau of Investigation concluded an investigation in April that found that nine members of the NRM continued to operate the group under the name Towards Freedom. On its website, Towards Freedom publicized events it held in multiple cities. At these events, individuals gave out flyers and stickers advertising the organization, and recruited new members.

As of December, parliament had not voted on an amendment to the Church Act, which governs the practices of the ELC. Parliament took up the bill in 2018 after the General Synod of the ELC approved it but did not enact the bill that year. The amended Church Act has the stated intent of clarifying and facilitating administration, enhancing church autonomy, and facilitating internal decision-making in the ELC. The amended act would clarify the ELC’s decision-making procedures. The Constitutional Law Committee argued that these details should not be addressed in the Church Act but rather in the Church Order, which is enacted by the ELC alone without parliament’s approval.

According to a representative of the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions (CORE Forum), an interfaith group, the Ministry of Interior created a working group in August dedicated to improving security at religious sites. According to the ministry’s website, the goal of the working group was to gather information on security threats directed at religious communities, especially Jewish synagogues and Muslim prayer rooms or mosques, and to propose suggestions for how safety could be enhanced through training and other measures.

According to the Secretary General of the Finnish Association of Museums, Kimmo Leva, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans to prepare a formal study of the state of research on the provenance of Holocaust-era art in museum collections, as recommended by the MEC in June, 2019. According to the MEC, the study was intended to address the lack of such research in order to better meet the requirements for the implementation of the Terezin Declaration on restitution of assets seized during the Holocaust. Leva said a national project to research all insufficient provenance information would be too large scale to conduct under restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He suggested the Finnish Association of Museums might crowdsource the research, following the example of the Finnish National Gallery, which, prior to the pandemic, had published a list online of all its art lacking sufficient provenance from the period 1933-1945. Leva said the MEC supported the strategy.

According to Yle News, in July, the Ministry of the Interior postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic an investigation into whether religious symbols, including headscarves, could be worn as part of police uniforms. The ministry was considering how the regulation on police uniforms could be amended. Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo said she would consider the results of the investigation when completed, then decide whether to launch a legislative reform proposal. The nondiscrimination ombudsman said current police uniform regulations ran counter to religious freedom and equality. According to the Yle News article, police were reluctant to alter the uniform. Ohisalo said the Ministry of Interior considered permitting religious symbols on police uniforms to be a means of integrating immigrants into society and giving them an equal chance to become police officers.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public healthcare funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, which were recommendations rather than requirements per prior Supreme Court rulings, the ministry stated only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express disagreement with the guidelines. The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice did not renew her 2018 request to the MSAH asking it to establish legally binding regulations on nonmedical circumcision.

Members of the opposition National Coalition Party (NCP) serving on parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee called on the government to enact laws regarding nonmedical male circumcision. Parliamentarian Pihla Keto-Huovinen said that the nonmedical circumcision of boys could be problematic in terms of other existing domestic laws and international agreements, including the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that the fundamental rights of a child must not be violated by invoking the freedom of religion and conscience of another person. The call to revisit the legal status of nonmedical male circumcision was prompted by a separate citizen’s initiative in 2019 calling for legislation banning female genital mutilation, though the citizen’s initiative did not include the nonmedical circumcision of boys.

According to representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the number of Russian-origin members of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on stated religious persecution declined significantly compared to previous years. The Finnish Immigration Service (FIS) rejected most of the claims by members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and confirmed that asylum adjudicators did not consider membership in the Church alone to be sufficient basis for an asylum claim. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. Authorities stated the government planned to deport applicants whose appeals were denied, and some Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses whose asylum claims were rejected returned to Russia voluntarily.

According to representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland, the FIS continued to deny most asylum applications for Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. The representatives said the FIS only considered “prominent persons” in the Ahmadi community to be in danger, while other Ahmadis should be able to move to safer areas of Pakistan instead of seeking asylum. The representatives said that when deportation orders were appealed, authorities requested proof that the individuals in question were in danger instead of considering the systematic persecution Ahmadis faced in Pakistan. The representatives said the group had requested to meet with the Ministry of Interior to discuss the challenges the community faced, but the ministry declined.

According to a senior military officer, the military continued to maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech and hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents. Unit commanders initiated investigations of reported incidents. If a commander judged the infraction to be minor, he or she administered a formal reprimand or other punishment. For more serious offenses, the commander reported the investigation up the chain of command, and military authorities might refer the case to civilian courts. The officer also said the military accommodated, per regulation, religious dietary needs and fasting requirements, and granted religious leave and prayer time to all personnel. The officer said that these procedures were maintained during the COVID-19 pandemic and that recruits still had access to military chaplains while pandemic protocols were in place.

According to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, in July, the Rovaniemi Court of Appeal upheld Finns Party MP Sebastian Tynkkynen’s fine for ethnic agitation in connection with his 2016 Facebook post on Islam and terrorism. In the post, Tynkkynen had said immigrants moved to the same areas where people were being radicalized. He blamed terrorist attacks in Europe on multiculturalism. He wrote, “The fewer Islamic envoys in Finland, the better. The fewer Muslims we have, the safer.” Tynkkynen denied having committed a crime and said his trial was politically motivated. The prosecutor in the case stated that Tynkkynen must have known his Facebook post was racist in nature and constituted defamatory hate speech directed at Muslims. In 2017, Tynkkynen was additionally convicted of ethnic agitation and the separate crime of breaching the sanctity of religion for other Facebook comments he posted in 2016. A third case for ethnic agitation was also pending at year’s end that involved anti-Muslim Facebook posts Tynkkynen wrote in 2017. Oulu police referred that case to the district prosecutor for consideration of charges.

According to the Helsinki Times, in July, 121 members of parliament voted in favor of and 54 members voted against lifting immunity from prosecution for Finns Party MP Juha Maenpaa. This was short of the five-sixths majority (167 votes) required to revoke immunity and thereby made it impossible for the prosecutor general to bring charges against Maenpaa for ethnic agitation or disturbance of religious peace. During a June 2019 session of parliament, Maenpaa had equated asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries with alien or invasive species. Prosecutor Raija Toiviainen said she was disappointed with the result. “It gives the impression that a minority voted to express its acceptance of racist hate speech.” Centre Party MP Mikko Karna, who voted against lifting Maenpaa’s immunity, wrote on Twitter, “Maenpaa used reprehensible and repulsive language in the Chamber, but in democracy, MPs cannot be brought to justice for speeches in the Chamber. The reprimands of the Speakers’ Council must suffice.”

According to Yle News, in February, the Oulu District Court fined Oulu city councilor Junes Lokka for two counts of ethnic agitation. The court found that Lokka had posted online videos in 2016 depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings. According to the prosecutor, the speaker in one of the videos called immigrants and Muslims “worthless” and “sick” and stated that they should not even exist. One video showed a demonstration in Helsinki featuring anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim speech. The court ruled the videos violated laws on human dignity and religious freedom.

According to Yle News, in August, Helsinki police completed their investigation of SDP MP Hussein al-Taee for alleged anti-Semitic Facebook posts from 2011-2012, before he was elected to parliament, and referred the case to the prosecutor. The investigation began in August 2019, when existence of the posts was reported in media and police determined the prosecutor’s ability to act had not expired because the posts were still in circulation. At a press conference in September, 2019, al-Taee apologized to Jewish and Sunni Muslim communities for the posts and did not contest the police findings that his posts promoted ethnic agitation. Al-Taee had also in 2014, and possibly as late as 2016, made anti-Semitic comments online, including comparing Israel to ISIS. During that time, he was a private citizen. By the end of 2020, neither the Social Democratic Party nor parliament had taken any disciplinary action against al-Taee in light of the police findings.

According to the newspaper Iltalehti, in January, Pauliina Kuhlmann (SDP), a municipal councilor of Polvijarvi in North Karelia, questioned in a Facebook post whether the Holocaust had occurred. Kuhlmann posted that the estimate of six million deaths was “about 25 times the upper limit” of actual deaths, and referred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp website as “false propaganda” and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as a “propaganda museum.” Other members of the municipal council denounced Kuhlmann’s post and in January she was expelled from the council. Kuhlmann resigned from the SDP in January and formally tendered her resignation from the council on January 31, which was accepted at the council’s next meeting on June 15. As of year’s end, there was no pending police investigation.

On February 20, the Helsinki Times reported Helsinki police questioned Christian Democrat MP Paivi Rasenen, a former Minister of Interior, for possible incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality in connection with a booklet she published in 2004. According to the Helsinki Times article, the booklet, titled “Male and Female He Created Them – Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity,” argued that LGBTI relationships were incompatible with the Christian faith. Incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality was outlawed in 1995. In June, 2019, Rasenen responded to news that the ELC was partnering with the Helsinki Pride Festival by posting a Bible passage coupled with the caption, “How can the church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?” At year’s end, the prosecutor was considering whether to bring charges in both cases.

The government allocated 115.6 million euros ($141.84 million) to the ELC, compared with 114 million euros ($139.88 million) in 2019, and 2.58 million euros ($3.17 million) to the Finnish Orthodox Church, compared with 2.54 million euros ($3.12 million) in 2019. The MEC allotted a total of 824,000 euros ($1.01 million) to all other registered religious organizations, an increase of 300,000 euros ($368,000) over 2019. The entire increase went to the Helsinki Jewish Congregation to continue its investments in security at facilities and events following anti-Semitic incidents. This was the second consecutive year the government provided this level of funding to this congregation for improving security; similar funding levels were included in the government’s fiscal plan for the next three years. According to the parliament’s Finance Committee, “The threats have not diminished, but increased anti-Semitism in many countries is also affecting the Finnish Jewish community.” In June, the government allocated an additional 4.5 million euros ($5.52 million) to the ELC and the Finnish Orthodox Church to support their work in helping local communities during the pandemic.

The MEC awarded a total of 110,000 euros ($135,000) to promote interfaith dialogue, an increase of 30,000 euros ($36,800) over 2019. Three organizations split the funding: the CORE Forum, composed of representatives from the largest religious denominations; Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization; and Ad Astra, an organization promoting dialogue, interfaith projects, and inclusivity for children in schools, preschools, and daycare facilities.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Despite the ban against it, the self-described neo-Nazi NRM continued to operate a website, made statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims, and participated in demonstrations, according to press reports. According to authorities, members of the NRM began operating as part of the Towards Freedom group, considered to be the NRM’s successor by the National Bureau of Investigation.

Media reported Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, meant to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and said on its website that it carried out the burning. Officers of the Central Finland Police Department were present at the rally and spoke to those burning the flag, but they made no arrests. A spokesperson for the department said only the burning of the national flag (and not another nation’s flag) is a criminal offense. Police subsequently announced they were investigating the flag burning as a case of illegal ethnic agitation. Media reported that on the same day, the front door, steps, and walls of Turku Synagogue were defaced with red paint. Police were investigating the incident as a property damage case but had made no arrests as of year’s end. President Sauli Niinisto and other government officials denounced both incidents in official statements.

According to the newspaper Ilta Sanomat, on January 31, vandals defaced the building housing the Embassy of Israel with NRM stickers. The same night, unknown individuals placed similar stickers on Helsinki Synagogue. Israeli Ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg told media that similar incidents had occurred numerous times in the last two years and that stickers were just one example of the vandalism and intimidation the embassy and Jews living in the country faced. Following the two incidents of vandalism, representatives of the Jewish community reported feeling threatened and specifically targeted due to their beliefs.

According to Yle News, in April, unknown individuals vandalized a Jewish cemetery in Hamina by knocking over a tombstone and painting a white swastika on another. The more than 200-year-old cemetery was no longer in use. The mayor of Hamina, Hannu Muhonen, denounced the vandalism, and the Helsinki Jewish Congregation filed a criminal report concerning the incident. The police confirmed the matter was under investigation but said no perpetrators had been identified. Yaron Nadbornik, head of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland, stated vandalism of Jewish cemeteries was uncommon, but said neo-Nazi leaflets had been distributed to mailboxes of nearby Hamina residents at the time of the incident. A pastor of the Hamina Orthodox Parish also reported seeing a leaflet advertising the neo-Nazi group Towards Freedom.

According to media reports, on August 16, the anti-immigrant National Alliance again organized a memorial march in Turku to commemorate the victims of a 2017 stabbing by a Moroccan asylum speaker. Approximately 300 persons joined the demonstration, holding banners that read, “White lives matter.” On the same day, the group Turku Without Nazis held a counterdemonstration. The website Freigner.fi showed a picture of one counter protester holding a sign reading, “No Nazis on our streets.”

NGOs working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. A representative of the center said converts to Christianity in migrant reception facilities often experienced harassment, including social exclusion, threats, and blackmail.

A representative of the Core Forum said that in June or July, a mosque in Jarvenpaa was defaced with stickers promoting the NRM.

A representative of the Core Forum said that Muslim groups, including the Islamic Congregation of Finland, continued to seek adequate houses of worship that could accommodate their growing population, but that they were hindered by insufficient funds from purchasing property, given that most Muslims did not belong to congregations registered with the government and did not choose to register. Except for a handful of purpose-built mosques, most mosques were located in converted commercial spaces. A representative of the Core Forum said on September 15 that this problem was driven by many Muslim congregations being too small to be able to raise the resources necessary to fund property purchases or construction.

Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said other Muslim congregations continued to block the group’s formal membership in interfaith organizations. A representative of the Core Forum said this was possibly because many Muslim groups did not consider Ahmadis to be “true Muslims.” Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said the group planned to create a mosque and cultural center in the future and that although the mosque would be built solely with funds from the Ahmadi community, it would be open to all religious and nonreligious individuals.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019 – 4 percent of total discrimination complaints – compared with 35 complaints in 2018. In one example the report cited, a swimming hall prevented women and girls dressed in burkinis from swimming. The ombudsman recommended that swimming halls allow the wearing of burkinis.

Research by theologian Esko Kahkonen published in January by the Diakonia University of Applied Sciences indicated most religiously motivated hate crimes targeting Muslims were committed by Muslims from groups he said were more extreme. Individuals he termed “liberal Muslims,” or Muslims from minority schools of Islam, were the most common victims, as well as individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity. According to Kahkonen’s research, which covered the period 2015-2016, only 8 percent of cases during that time were incidents in which non-Muslims targeted Muslims. Jenita Rauta, a researcher from the National Police Academy, said that the 2015-2016 data included many instances of hate crimes between Sunni and Shia Muslims and that an increase in the number of asylum seekers who were placed in reception centers without extensive background checks – intended to identify individuals with a history violent or illegal behavior – drove the phenomenon. Rauta said that more recent National Police Academy data from 2017-2018 showed a larger proportion of hate crimes targeting individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity.

The website Magneettimedia continued to post anti-Semitic content. In September, it published an article stating, “Harmful immigration to Europe is not the fault of the Islamic religion or Muslims, but is the fault of international Zionists and their global henchmen,” and, “Israel and the related Khazar-mafia have taken as their objective causing confrontation between the Christian world and the Islamic world.” Major companies and consumer brands continued to boycott the department store chain owned by the former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, due to his anti-Semitic views.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of religious groups participated in virtual events hosted by other religious groups. Finn Church Aid (FCA), associated with the ELC, again hosted an interfaith iftar, bringing together virtually representatives from the major religious groups, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and municipal governments.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, embassy staff engaged with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in asylum adjudications. The embassy engaged with the police following several anti-Semitic incidents in January and encouraged the government to identify and prosecute those responsible. The Ambassador met with the Israeli Ambassador on several occasions to discuss these incidents and raised the concerns of the Israeli embassy with government officials and in media. The Ambassador also hosted a virtual board meeting of the Core Forum on November 17 to discuss the government’s response to COVID-19 and the ongoing parliamentary debate on nonmedical male circumcision.

Embassy staff engaged with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, lay activists from these communities, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy staff and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed these communities’ shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, religiously motivated crimes, and problems establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with representatives from different Muslim congregations and met regularly with NGOs such as the Core Forum and FCA. Embassy staff continued to engage with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning the high rate of application denials for Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution. Embassy staff met with representatives of the Ahmadi Muslim community, who expressed concerns over the high rate of denials of asylum applications for Ahmadis from Pakistan. Embassy staff also engaged with the Uyghur Muslim community.

A senior embassy official hosted the administrative head of the Jewish Community of Helsinki at an event intended to introduce the head to senior representatives from other foreign missions in the country to amplify the challenges of anti-Semitism in Finland.

Ghana

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, stipulates that individuals are free to profess and practice their religion, and does not designate a state religion. Registration is required for religious groups to have legal status. On March 15, the government restricted public gatherings, including for in-person worship, as a measure to combat COVID-19. While most Christian and Muslim leaders advised their communities to follow the directive, a minority, primarily composed of small, independent churches, complained that the ban on large gatherings infringed upon religious liberties, and some defied the decrees by gathering for worship. President Nana Akufo-Addo lifted the ban on July 31. The President moved forward with plans for an interdenominational national Christian cathedral, but opposition to the proposal for the new cathedral continued.

Muslim and Christian leaders continued to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and reported communication and coordination among themselves on a wide array of matters. Religious institutions played a key role in providing vulnerable citizens a social safety net, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious leaders generally praised the government for consulting with religious institutions on those measures.

U.S. embassy representatives discussed with government officials the importance of mutual understanding, religious tolerance, and respect for all religious groups. Embassy officers discussed religious freedom and tolerance with religious leaders, including engagement with the National Peace Council and Regional Peace Councils, whose governing councils include prominent religious leaders. In April, the Ambassador published a Ramadan message recognizing interfaith engagement, cooperation, and partnership.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2010 government census (the most recent available), approximately 71 percent of the population is Christian, 18 percent is Muslim, 5 percent adheres to indigenous or animistic religious beliefs, and 6 percent belongs to other religious groups or has no religious beliefs. Smaller religious groups include the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Eckankar, and Rastafarianism.

Christian denominations include Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Eden Revival Church International, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventist, Pentecostal, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, African independent churches, the Society of Friends, and numerous nondenominational Christian groups, including charismatic churches.

Muslim communities include Sunnis, Ahmadiyya, Shia, and Sufis (Tijaniyyah and Qadiriyya orders).

Many individuals who identify as Christian or Muslim also practice some aspects of indigenous beliefs. There are syncretic groups that combine elements of Christianity or Islam with traditional beliefs. Zetahil, a belief system unique to the country, combines elements of Christianity and Islam.

There is no significant link between ethnicity and religion, but geography is often associated with religious identity. Christians reside throughout the country; the majority of Muslims reside in the northern regions and in the urban centers of Accra, Kumasi, and Sekondi-Takoradi. Most followers of traditional religious beliefs reside in rural areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for individuals’ freedom to profess and practice any religion. These rights may be limited for stipulated reasons including defense, public safety, public health, or the management of essential services.

Religious groups must register with the Office of the Registrar General in the Ministry of Justice to receive formal government recognition and status as a legal entity, but there is no penalty for not registering. The registration requirement for religious groups is the same as for nongovernmental organizations. To register, groups must fill out a form and pay a fee. Most indigenous religious groups do not register.

According to law, registered religious groups are exempt from paying taxes on nonprofit religious, charitable, and educational activities. Religious groups are required to pay taxes, on a pay-as-earned basis, on for-profit business activities, such as church-run private schools and universities.

The Ministry of Education includes compulsory religious and moral education in the national public education curriculum. There is no provision to opt out of these courses, which incorporate perspectives from Christianity and Islam. There is also an Islamic education unit within the Ministry of Education responsible for coordinating all public education activities for Muslim communities. The ministry permits private religious schools; however, they must follow the prescribed curriculum set by the ministry. International schools, such as those that do not follow the government curriculum, are exempt from these requirements. Faith-based schools that accept funds from the government are obliged to comply with the directive that states students’ religious practices must be respected.

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

Government Practices

While most Christian and Muslim leaders advised their communities to follow a March 15 government directive restricting public gatherings to combat COVID-19, a minority, primarily composed of small independent churches, complained that the ban on large gatherings infringed upon religious liberties, and some contravened the decrees by gathering for worship. President Akufo-Addo lifted the ban on July 31, although restrictions on capacity and length of worship remained in place. President Akufo-Addo declared March 25 a National Day of Prayer and Fasting for protection for the country and the world from COVID-19.

Despite vigorous debate among religious groups and lawmakers about the utility of legislation to manage the activities of “self-styled” pastors, no consensus had developed and no legislation was drafted. In 2019, the Christian Council of Ghana, an umbrella group of mainly Protestant denominations, disagreed with calls by some legislators for a law to control the activities of “self-styled” pastors, saying the situation was “complex” and calling instead for self-regulation, such as established ecumenical bodies’ sharing best practices with churches.

There were reports of uneven enforcement and implementation in schools across the country of the government directive requiring schools to respect students’ religious practices. Muslim leaders continued to report that some publicly funded Christian mission schools required female Muslim students to remove their hijabs and Muslim students to participate in Christian worship services, despite a Ministry of Education policy prohibiting these practices. The Islamic Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service received a complaint that a private school in Accra asked a student to remove her hijab. Similarly, there were continued reports that some publicly funded Islamic mission schools required female Christian students to wear the hijab.

Both support for and opposition to the President’s proposal to build an interdenominational national Christian cathedral continued. Although President Akufo-Addo stated that public funds would not be used for the project, critics questioned whether the $100 million cathedral should be a priority for a country with urgent development needs and argued that the project inappropriately linked the state with a particular faith. In March, President Akufo-Addo attended a ceremony marking the beginning of construction of the national cathedral; construction was delayed until October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government officials leading meetings, receptions, and state funerals generally offered Christian and Islamic prayers and, occasionally, traditional invocations. President Akufo-Addo, a Christian, and Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia, a Muslim, continued to emphasize the importance of peaceful religious coexistence in public remarks. While receiving an international religious leader in February, Akufo-Addo commented, “We are a country where even though the overwhelming majority are Christian, we have a significant Muslim population, and there are still a few who are committed to the old gods. They make up the population and we live here in harmony and in tolerance of each other. It is one of the distinctive features of this country and it is one we want to preserve.” On New Year’s Eve, Bawumia celebrated with a Christian congregation, stating, “We have a country in which the Chief Imam, belonging to the Islamic Faith, celebrates his birthday in a church. And today, like in many instances, we have the Vice President who is a Muslim worshipping with Christians to mark the end of the year… These are a few of the many instances of such religious tolerance and coexistence we enjoy in Ghana.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim and Christian leaders continued informal dialogue between their respective governing bodies and the National Peace Council. Faith leaders said they regularly communicated among themselves on religious matters and ways to address issues of concern or sensitivity. Religious institutions played a key role in providing vulnerable citizens a social safety net during the COVID-19 pandemic, and religious leaders generally praised the government for consulting with religious institutions on the measures. For example, the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference in March appealed to Catholic organizations, businesses, and worshipers to donate supplies to medical professionals and to provide food and shelter to those affected by to those affected by COVID-19-related restrictions.

There were numerous reports of religious figures making controversial prophecies. Some religious leaders predicted the outcome of the country’s national elections, which took place in December, straining political tensions ahead of polling.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives discussed with government officials the importance of mutual understanding, religious tolerance, and respect for all religious groups. Embassy officials also discussed these subjects with a broad range of religious groups and civil society organizations, including Christian groups such as the Christian Council and the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, as well as Muslim civil society organizations such as the Office of the National Chief Imam. They also engaged with the National Peace Council and Regional Peace Councils, whose governing councils include prominent religious leaders. In addition, the Ambassador underscored in meetings with key religious leaders that the United States supported an individual’s right to his or her faith as well as the right of individuals not to practice any religion. In April, the Ambassador published a Ramadan message recognizing interfaith engagement, cooperation, and partnership.

The embassy continued its support for the efforts of the West Africa Center for Counter Extremism, a local organization that brought together traditional leaders, interfaith religious leaders, political party leaders, and local government authorities to emphasize messages of peace, tolerance, and nonviolence to vulnerable youth.

Jamaica

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to worship and to change one’s religion. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. A colonial-era law criminalizing the practices of Obeah and Myalism remains in effect, but it is not enforced. In July, the Supreme Court ruled the constitutional rights of the claimant were not violated in the 2018 case of a child blocked from attending Kensington Primary School due to her locs (dreadlocks) because her parents did not identify as Rastafarian. School officials, however, allowed her to continue attendance. The Supreme Court decision continued to garner attention from advocacy and religious groups that noted the case’s potential impact on cultural identity and religious expression. Rastafarians said the court’s judgment underscored false misconceptions about the health and cleanliness of people who wear their hair in locs. The government formally began compensating individuals from a trust fund it established in 2017 for victims of the 1963 Coral Gardens incident, in which eight persons were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between a Rastafarian farming community and security forces. Seventh-day Adventists reported that their observance of a Saturday Sabbath was not taken into account by government COVID-19 lockdown restrictions because the government made Saturdays one of only two permitted shopping days.

Rastafarians continued to report prejudice against their religion, while they also said there was increasing societal acceptance and respect for their practices. Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for religious dialogue open to participants from all religious groups. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship, which includes representatives from Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’i, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist organizations, continued to hold events to promote religious tolerance and diversity.

U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade; the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport; and the Jamaican Defense Force to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country, including the rights and treatment of religious minorities. Embassy officials also met regularly with leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians. The embassy published a press release on January 17 from the Ambassador celebrating U.S. National Religious Freedom Day and recognizing the importance of religious freedom. Other embassy representatives included similar references to the value of religious freedom and tolerance in speeches and other public engagements, press releases, and social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent available data (2011 census), 26 percent of the population belongs to various branches of the Church of God; 12 percent Seventh-day Adventist; 11 percent Pentecostal; 7 percent Baptist; 3 percent Anglican; 2 percent Roman Catholic; 2 percent United Church of Christ; 2 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses; 2 percent Methodist; 1 percent Revivalist; and 1 percent Rastafarian. Two percent maintain some other form of spiritual practice. Other religious groups constitute 8 percent of the population, including approximately 23,000 members of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, 18,000 Moravians, 6,500 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1,500 Muslims (Islamic groups estimate their numbers at 6,500), 1,800 Hindus, 500 Jews, and 270 Baha’is. The census reports 21 percent have no religious affiliation. There is no census data on adherents of Yahweh, Sikhism, Jainism, or Obeah and Myalism, religious practices with West African influences, although these practices are reportedly more common in rural villages.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief either alone or in community with others, both in public and in private, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. The constitution provides that rights and freedoms are protected to the extent they do not “prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.”

A colonial-era law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism remains in effect. Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months.

Registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, but groups, including churches or congregations, may incorporate to gain benefits, including the ability to hold land, enter into legal disputes as an organization, and allow their clergy to visit prisoners. Groups seeking incorporated status apply to the Companies Office of Jamaica, an executive agency. The application comprises a standard form and a fee of 24,500 Jamaican dollars ($160). NGOs register through the same form and fee structure. Groups incorporated through this process must subsequently submit annual reports and financial statements to the Companies Office.

Alternatively, groups may petition parliament to be incorporated by parliamentary act. Such groups receive similar benefits to those incorporating through the Companies Office, but parliament does not require annual reports or regulate the organizations it incorporates.

Regardless of incorporation status, religious groups seeking tax-exempt status must register as charities. To be considered a charity, an organization must apply either to the Department of Co-operatives and Friendly Societies, located in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, or to the Companies Office. Once registered, groups also submit their registration to the Jamaica Customs Agency in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service and apply to Tax Administration Jamaica to be considered for tax-free status.

The constitution states religious groups have the right to provide religious instruction to members of their communities.

By law, immunizations are mandatory for all children attending both public and private schools; however, exceptions for medical reasons may be granted.

The law requires school administrators to adhere to several practices regarding the teaching of religion. No individual may be required to receive religious instruction or participate in religious observances contrary to his or her beliefs. The public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu houses of worship. Students may not opt out of religious education, but religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional. The law permits homeschooling.

Churches operate several private schools. Churches also run a number of public schools, for which they receive funding from the government and must abide by Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information rules. Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths and adhere to ministry standards. Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions; they do not receive special treatment from the government based on their religious or denominational affiliation. Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches. The Islamic Council of Jamaica runs four schools.

Foreign religious workers, regardless of affiliation, who visit the country to work with a religious organization must obtain a visa and a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

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

Government Practices

In July, the Supreme Court ruled Kensington Primary School had not infringed on the constitutional rights of a child blocked from attending the school in 2018 until her locs were cut. The court decided that, because the child’s parents did not identify as Rastafarian, nor did they claim they were raising the child as Rastafarian, the claimant’s contention that the school’s order was violation of the child’s right to religious freedom was invalid. The court highlighted that, “Children have long been allowed to wear locs to school as a religious expression of their, and their parent’s faith.” Although the Supreme Court’s stay authorizing her to attend school while the case continued had expired, Kensington Primary School officials subsequently issued a statement that the school would allow the child to attend class without cutting her locs. The decision continued to garner attention from advocacy and religious groups who noted the case’s symbolic representation and potential impact on cultural identity and religious expression. Rastafarian religious groups, in particular, said the court’s judgment underscored false misconceptions about the health and cleanliness of people who wear their hair in locs. In commenting on the case in August, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said, “[Jamaica’s] children must not be discriminated against or deprived of their right to an education on the basis of their hairstyle.” He said the government needed to review and amend the Education Act to reflect a “modern and culturally inclusive” position that “protects our children from being barred from any educational institution on the basis of wearing locs as an ordinary hairstyle, irrespective of religious reasons.” Similarly, the Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport, Olivia Grange, expressed concern over reports and the ruling, explaining to media in an August 3 interview that, “Wider society must also examine its approach to members of the Rastafarian community and pledge to end discrimination that is manifested in our actions, including the denial of school admission to children with locs.”

In May, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport Grange called for an investigation of allegations that a Rastafarian elder’s beard was cut without his consent while he was a patient at a public hospital. According to a statement from the ministry, Grange asked Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton to launch an investigation because it was not government policy to cut the hair of members of the Rastafarian faith seeking medical attention at public facilities.

Rastafarians continued to report discrimination against their children at schools, mostly in rural areas, and at some workplaces. Protests in August following the Supreme Court’s decision to allow schools to block children from attending school because of their locs sought to bring attention to the issue. Speaking to press in August, Rastafarian Gardens Benevolent Society Secretary Pamela Rowe-Williams stated that Rastafarians still faced discrimination and the onus was on the government to “embark on a public-education campaign to counter the false misconception.” She said that Rastafarian parents were coming under increasing pressure to cut their children’s hair. Minister of Education Karl Samuda met with the protesters in solidarity, noting that Jamaicans must not tolerate indifference to the Rastafarian faith. He said, “No child should be denied the right of entry to any school in Jamaica, so there is no issue in relation to the rights of the Rastafarians.” According to the minister, a definite, definitive policy of tolerance for Rastafarians in “all aspects of Jamaican life” was “paramount to the administration, the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet.”

The Jamaican Defense Force (JDF) generally did not accept Rastafarians into its ranks. The JDF had previously noted it did not discriminate based on religion or denomination, but rather the force’s strict codes of conduct regarding hair length and the prohibition of marijuana use among its members were the obstacles to Rastafarian participation in the force.

While by law practicing Obeah and Myalism were still criminal acts, both the government and media reported no enforcement cases nor new discussion to repeal the law during the year.

Seventh-day Adventists continued to report their observance of a Saturday Sabbath caused them difficulties. According to media reports, some Adventists said the selection of Wednesday and Saturday as the only shopping days during government-imposed COVID-19 lockdowns conflicted with their ability to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays.

National Heritage Week, observed on October 11-17, culminated with a religious service at William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church. The service, one of the main events marking the country’s Heritage Week, was streamed live on national television as well as social media.

According to media, during the year the government began formally compensating individuals from a trust fund it established in 2017 for victims of the 1963 Coral Gardens incident, in which eight persons were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between a Rastafarian farming community outside Montego Bay and security forces. Prime Minister Holness apologized for the incident in 2017, and in December 2019, the government finalized the creation of a trust to compensate the victims. In April, Minister of Culture Grange said her ministry contributed an additional 78 million Jamaican dollars ($520,000) to the trust, bringing its total to 90 million Jamaican dollars ($600,000), as well as an additional six million Jamaican dollars ($40,000) in housing support for four survivors needing special care.

According to Sheikh Musa Tijani, Director and Head of Education for the Islamic Council of Jamaica, the government was helpful in supporting the council’s efforts to reach Muslims across the island.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Rastafarians continued to report wider societal acceptance despite continued negative stereotyping and stigma associated with their wearing locs and smoking marijuana. Major press outlets, including The Gleaner and The Jamaica Observer, published articles noting the celebration of the 75th birthday of Bob Marley, a Rastafarian advocate whose music and rhetoric helped popularize the religion in the 1970s. The celebration culminated in the release of a documentary series exploring Marley’s legacy, including how his spirituality brought the Rastafarian religion to the forefront of Reggae culture.

Christian, Jewish, and Islamic groups continued to state that society was tolerant of religious diversity, citing their continued involvement, along with other faiths, in the Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship. The interfaith council included representatives from the Rastafari Innity Council, Sanatan Dharma Mandir United Church, Unification Church, National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, United Congregation of Israelites, Islamic Council, and Soka Gakkai International. Other organizations sometimes participated in council events. The council continued to coordinate public education events and to publicize World Interfaith Harmony Week sponsored worldwide by the Baha’i Faith and celebrated annually during the first week of February.

Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for extensive coverage and open dialogue on religious matters through radio and television shows, as well as on opinion pages and letters to the editor in newspapers, such as The Gleaner and The Jamaica Observer. Topics included the intersection of LGBTI rights with religion, the shared values and beliefs of religions, interfaith harmony, and religion’s role in the government. The Gleaner also published a series of academic discussions on religion and culture, exploring the history and practices of Yahweh, Sikhism, and Jainism, among others.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials regularly engaged with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade; Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport; and the JDF to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.

Although limited by COVID-19 restrictions, embassy officials also met with and encouraged dialogue among leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Rastafarians, to discuss the importance of religious tolerance, social inclusion, and freedom of expression and assembly in relation to religious freedom.

On January 17, the Ambassador published a press release celebrating U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, emphasizing the importance of religious freedom for all. Other embassy representatives included similar references to the value of religious freedom and tolerance in speeches and other public engagements, press releases, and on social media. On October 21, the Ambassador and other embassy officials met Sheikh Musa Tijani of the Islamic Council of Jamaica to discuss the general state of Islam in the country.

New Zealand

Executive Summary

The constitution provides the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. In August, a court sentenced the individual convicted of committing the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, the worst mass killings in the country’s history, to life in prison with no parole – a sentence unique in the modern legal history of the country. The report by a royal commission established to investigate the Christchurch mosque attacks was published in December. In response, the government promised reforms aimed at safeguarding the country’s minority religious and ethnic communities and at improving greater social cohesion. In August, the government introduced a new law covering religious instruction in public schools, and in September, the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools designed to clarify the legal obligation of the schools’ boards of trustees when allowing religious instruction.

The government-funded Human Rights Commission (HRC) received 87 inquiries or complaints of discrimination based on religious belief for 2018-19, compared with 65 in the previous period. The New Zealand Jewish Council said that anti-Semitism increased, particularly online.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers met with government officials to offer continuing support in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. They also met with representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2018 census data, of those responding regarding religious affiliation, 10.2 percent are Roman Catholic, 7 percent Anglican, 5 percent Presbyterian, 10 percent other Christian denominations (including Maori syncretic religions such as Ratana and Ringatu), 2.6 percent Hindu, 1.3 percent Muslim, 1.2 percent Buddhist, and 0.1 percent Jewish. More than 90 additional religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. The number of persons stating no religious affiliation increased from 42 percent to 49 percent between 2013 and 2018; 6.8 percent of the respondents to the census question on religion stated they objected to the question.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, comprising several basic laws, states that religious expression is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” According to the law, religious practices may not breach the peace.

The government does not require the licensing or registration of religious groups; however, for a religious group to collect money for any charitable purpose, including the advancement of its religion, or to obtain tax benefits, it must register with the Department of Internal Affairs as a charitable trust. The registration must provide the rules of the organization showing it is a nonprofit organization and a list of officers free from conflict of interest who will not put their own interests above the organization. There is no fee for registration.

According to the 2020 Education and Training Act, which came into force in August, individual school boards that choose to allow religious instruction in public schools must have signed consent from a parent or caregiver to include a child in that religious instruction (“opt in”). The previous legislation required parents or guardians to make their wishes known in writing if they did not wish a child to take part in religious instruction or observance (“opt out”). The national education law specifies that teaching in state primary and intermediate schools must be secular while the school is open. The law allows schools to close for up to one hour per week and no more than 20 hours per year to allow religious instruction by voluntary instructors, which must be held on an opt-in basis. To comply with human rights laws, school boards must ensure that religious instruction does not discriminate against religious or nonreligious beliefs of students. The law states this should involve boards consulting closely with the school community, offering valid alternatives to religious instruction, providing secular school and student support services, and having an adequate complaints procedure to resolve issues. Religious observance and religious instruction – when a particular religion or faith is taught or given preference in a state primary or intermediate school – differ from general religious education, which is not regulated by legislation.

Individuals may file complaints of unlawful discrimination, including on the basis of religious belief, to the HRC. The HRC’s mandate includes assuring equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, protecting the right to safety for religious individuals and communities, promoting freedom of religious expression and reasonable accommodation for religious groups, and promoting religious tolerance in education. In the event a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily with the assistance of HRC mediation, the complainant may proceed to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT). The tribunal has the authority to issue restraining orders, award monetary damages, or declare a breach of the Human Rights Act through a report to parliament. Conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Act (e.g., workplace discrimination, including that based on religion) may also be prosecuted under other applicable laws. In addition to the HRC dispute resolution mechanism, a complainant may initiate proceedings in the court system; in exceptional circumstances, HRRT cases may be transferred to the High Court.

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

Government Practices

In August, a court in Christchurch sentenced the perpetrator of the March, 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings that took 51 lives and injured 49 others to life in prison with no parole. This was the first time in the country’s history that such a sentence was handed down. A royal commission – the highest level of government inquiry – established to investigate the Christchurch mosque attacks published its findings in December. While the report found the government had made mistakes, it said the attack had been unpreventable. The government promised reforms aimed at safeguarding the country’s minority religious and ethnic communities and at improving greater social cohesion.

In August, the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools to help trustees develop best practices for religious instruction in compliance with the new Education and Training Act. The guidelines provided guidance on how to enable the closure of schools for the delivery of religious instruction in a way that would reduce the possibility of discrimination.

In September, following the entry into force of the Education and Training Act, the Secular Education Network, a local nongovernmental organization, withdrew from its long-running court case with the Ministry of Education, which had asserted that religious instruction allowances in the previous Education Act were inconsistent with the more recent Human Rights and Bill of Rights Acts. The network stated it was committed to continuing its broader efforts to end what it termed “religious indoctrination” in state primary and intermediate schools.

In June, the Justice Minister delayed any possible changes to hate speech legislation, which he had previously described as “woefully inadequate,” until after the country’s October general election. The Human Rights Commission has recommended since 2004 that police should collect specific hate crime data – a recommendation repeated in the 2019 HRC report, It Happened Here: Reports of race and religious hate crime in New Zealand 2004-2012, which brought together for the first time the HRC’s annual summaries of media reports on racially and religiously motivated crime during that period. The HRC condemned the absence of systematically collected data on these crimes, saying, “Without such data it is difficult to have an informed discussion about the prevalence of hate crimes.” It advocated that authorities gather information, including the number of complaints, prosecutions, and convictions for crimes motivated by characteristics such as race and religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The HRC received 87 complaints of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or lack of religious belief during 2018-19, compared with 65 complaints during 2017-18. Reports of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs made up 13 per cent of all complaints raised with the commission in 2018-19.

While it said that anti-Semitic incidents remained rare, the New Zealand Jewish Council said online anti-Semitism was increasing. In January, a swastika was spray-painted on the outside wall of the Temple Sinai Wellington Jewish Progressive Congregation, and supportive anti-Semitic comments later appeared online.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers met with government officials to offer continuing support in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. Embassy and consulate general officials regularly met with officials in the HRC and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to consult on encouraging tolerance and religious freedom in the country. They also met with representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society. The embassy worked closely with an activist for equal rights for Muslim women to expand her networks and increase her public profile.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. All religious organizations must register with the government. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In February, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi, who now lives in the United States, had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens.

At various times throughout the year, the Ambassador and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials and religious minority leaders to discuss the needs and support the worship practices of all religious groups. In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in Oman.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The government’s National Center for Statistics and Information estimates the population at 4.5 million; citizens constitute 61 percent of the population (data as of December). The government does not publish statistics on the percentages of citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia forms of Islam. In 2015 the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Center estimated Sunni Muslims at nearly 50 percent of the citizen population, Ibadhi Muslims at 45 percent, and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at a combined 5 percent.

Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia. Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians. Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.

There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years. The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment. Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religious group is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three-years’ imprisonment. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.” Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime that carries a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they may register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA. The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters. Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the Sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve the construction or leasing of buildings by religious groups. In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction. The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another. Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation. Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but there are no sharia courts. Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code. The law states that Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition. The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.

Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion. Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship. Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.

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

Government Practices

According to an NGO report, Zaher al-Abri, an Islamic scholar who serves on the government-appointed Council of State, said in a televised interview that women should wear the hijab and only expose their palms and faces in public. He also said that cosmetics lack divine sanction.

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters. These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The government-appointed Grand Mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters. In November, the Grand Mufti criticized on Twitter the Pope’s comments expressing support for civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, describing this concept as “shameful and fallen.”

Religious groups continued to report opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration, but none reported they were actively seeking to register with the government. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration. MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register. Representatives of some religious groups said that additional communication from MERA would help their communities navigate the process for obtaining property for religious facilities or clarify legal provisions governing religious practices.

The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship. MERA was working with the Church, the Sikh community, and other groups to identify suitable, permanent places of worship, a MERA official said. Other religious minority groups, such as the Buddhist community, reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship. MERA was willing to work with other government ministries to secure additional, government-approved land to relieve the overcrowding that some minority groups were experiencing, a MERA official said. Although at least one of the groups said that it had submitted requests in the past to acquire land for a house of worship, these groups stated that they were not actively pursuing land with MERA during the year, in part because of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the past several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country, which they coordinated with MERA by submitting an annual calendar of events. Pandemic precautions precluded such large celebrations during the year.

Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership. Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship. The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA. Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country. Christian community leaders and MERA said that they were coordinating to establish a second Christian cemetery, since the first was reaching capacity. As of December, MERA officials stated that they had enlisted the help of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning to identify land for this site.

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings, although there is no law stating that custody is tied to religious affiliation.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

In February, the ADL again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair. According to the ADL, the listings included “numerous copies” of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and Henry Ford’s The International Jew, as well as “over a dozen” additional anti-Semitic books.

In November, the MFA’s Chief of Global Affairs participated in a two-hour virtual meeting with American Jewish Committee (AJC) officials as part of the country’s outreach to representatives of non-Muslim religious groups.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens. Al-Bawaba stated that in a now deleted tweet, al-Balushi said, “I am very fortunate to be in America, because if I were in Oman, they would kill me and imprison me as soon as I criticized or left Islam.”

The interfaith al-Amana Center, which was founded and is supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it shifted to hosting virtual programs in conjunction with MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

In a poll of 200 of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, only 12 percent agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, among the lowest in the broader Middle East.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in the country.

In December, the embassy posted a video message on social media promoting tolerance and diversity, exemplified by Americans of diverse backgrounds who come together and respect various holiday traditions in the United States.

Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its efforts to support the worship practices of all religious groups. Embassy officers raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religious groups’ places of worship and encouraged MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship. Embassy officers also met with religious minority leaders to discuss the needs of their religious groups and the challenges they faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The embassy also promoted religious freedom through its online presence by posting a message to social media on the 22nd anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future