Egypt

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 104.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. These include Anglican/Episcopalian, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches. Most Protestant denominations are members of the umbrella group known as the Protestant Churches of Egypt (PCE), also known as the Evangelical Church Association. These include the Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (al-Mithaal al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (al-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-Day Adventists. There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses and an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population. Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000 persons. There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are six to 10 Jews.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. The constitution prohibits political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents as defined by the government to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. The constitution states that al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The Grand Imam is elected by al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the President for a life term. The President does not have the authority to dismiss him. The constitution declares al-Azhar to be an independent institution and requires the government to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes.”

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The Grand Mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the sentence.

The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Although the government designates Jehovah’s Witnesses as “Christian” on identity cards, a presidential decree bans their religious activities. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The Minister of Interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion. However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion. The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to a Ministry of Interior decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that personal status matters for Christian and Jewish communities are governed by their respective religious doctrine.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; or harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar al-Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar al-Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of the Interior’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and al-Azhar. The President then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both. The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons written and disseminated by the Ministry of Awqaf. Ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques, and an imam who fails to follow the guidelines for ministry sermons may lose the bonus and be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.

The Prime Minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith) and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates. The governor is to respond within four months of receipt of an application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet specific land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum of 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1,884 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Schools determine the religious identity of students, and the religious studies courses they should take, based on official identity card designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including parochial schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves an estimated two million students from kindergarten through secondary school using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to… religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment, a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both, as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,200) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,400).

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems and is recognized in the law in instances that do not involve serious crimes such as homicide, serious injury, or theft. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations bring together opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Muslim and Christian religious leaders said that in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it has become largely inactive.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens with documentation from a cleric and does not recognize civil marriage for citizens. Marriages of Shia are recognized as Muslim. The government recognizes civil marriages of individuals from other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, if one or both are foreigners. Authorities deny Baha’is the rights of married couples pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse. In practice, however, Baha’is are able to file individual petitions for recognition of their marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program called “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain conditions are met, including requirements that the guardians share the same religion as the child and have been married to one another for a minimum of five years.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament under a 2016 law, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “No political activity may be engaged in, or political parties formed, on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location.

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, as of year’s end, parliament had not acted to implement the mandate.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. The men were among a group of 17 defendants who were tried and sentenced to death in 2018 for their involvement in these and other attacks.

On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each on charges of membership in a banned group, possession of firearms, setting fire to a religious establishment, and other charges for their roles in the arson attack on the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On September 17, the Court of Cassation ordered that an additional 22 defendants, who in 2018 were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the attack on the church, have their sentences reduced to between two and five years’ imprisonment.

On June 27, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemned the continued detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salid and other activists. Authorities originally arrested Kamel in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community. The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. On December 6, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.

On August 22, authorities arrested Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate and member of the Quranists (Quraniyyun), who believe that the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed). In September, press and NGOs reported that authorities were investigating Abdel-Rahman for joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his arrest. According to the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), security officers questioned Abdel-Rahman and seven of his relatives arrested at the same time about their relationship with Quranist leader Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour and their adoption of Quranist principles before releasing the seven relatives. EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him. On December 31, authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention.

On January 11, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment each for a 2016 attack on Souad Thabet, a Christian who was stripped and dragged through her village of Karm in Minya, in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. According to the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Thabet welcomed the convictions and praised President al-Sisi for his public support for her and her family. Three defendants, sentenced in absentia, surrendered to authorities and faced automatic retrial on the same charges in the Minya Criminal Court. (The status of the fourth defendant remained unknown.) After announcing that it would hand down its verdict on August 24, the Minya Criminal Court ordered the case returned to the Beni Suef Criminal Court, which acquitted the three men on December 17. The same day, the Public Prosecutor ordered the formation of a technical committee to review and challenge the acquittal. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms told the al-Monitor news website the verdict demonstrated the deep-rooted bias within the judicial system against Christians. According to an analyst of customary reconciliation sessions from EIPR, local Christians whose houses had been damaged in the incident agreed to hold a customary reconciliation session with the alleged assailants after facing pressure from the local Muslim community in February.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. Authorities arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”

NGOs and press reported that on May 20, authorities assaulted a priest and arrested 14 Copts who were protesting the destruction of their church in Beheira Governorate. The lawyer for the Coptic community said that the church had been used for 15 years before the Abu al-Matamir city council ordered it removed. According to NGOs, after the church opened, local Muslims built a mosque next to the church with the aim of preventing the church from being legalized. According to NGO reports, security forces razed both the church and the adjacent mosque, since both appeared to encroach on agricultural land owned by the state. Church officials later stated that the government was within its rights to dismantle the church.

Although in late 2018 President al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing,” efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support. In 2019, al-Azhar founded a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.” The Bayan Unit published several social media pieces that were critical of atheism, and on August 25, as part of a training program, al-Azhar organized a workshop on “atheism, its types, and the most important methods of dealing with adherents of its ideas.”

On April 13, authorities in Beheira Governorate detained three Muslim teenagers on suspicion of blasphemy after they posted a video showing one of them smoking while performing prayers. According to local press, the three minors confessed, and said they posted the video to become famous.

On June 27, the State Security Misdemeanor Court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men initially arrested in 2019 to one year in prison each for violating laws against “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. According to an international NGO, the government based its prosecution of the two men on provisions in the penal code that criminalize the defamation of religion and spreading propaganda “insulting ‘the heavenly [Abrahamic] religions.”

On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belonged to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a doctor and professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. The court’s decision followed a lawsuit filed by activist lawyer Samir Sabry, whose office told the press after the decision, “The reasons behind this verdict are based on the dangers of Shiite ideology on Egyptian society and national security, as Shiites in Egypt use religion for political manipulation.” Al-Nafis said the country’s Shia community was not interested in conversions and added, “We are not hurting anyone.” One press report stated that the verdict was issued despite the fact that there are no laws prohibiting the promotion of Shia beliefs and that a 1959 fatwa from al-Azhar recognized the legitimacy of the Shia Jafaari school along with the four main Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

On August 26, a Port Said criminal court sentenced a man in absentia to 15 years in prison for allegedly “distorting” the text of the Quran after he said he had received a divine revelation. The court convicted the man of producing a “new Quran” in violation of laws that regulate the printing of the Quran.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. On August 28, the MOI announced the arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ezzat had been a fugitive since 2013 when he was sentenced in absentia to two death sentences and life imprisonment on multiple terrorism-related charges. Following his arrest, the law required he face retrial on those charges. Upon Ezzat’s arrest, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated sources announced that Ibrahim Mounir, who lives in the United Kingdom, had become the new acting supreme guide.

The Court of Cassation in July upheld a life sentence for Mohammed Badie and five other Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted for involvement in political violence in 2013. Essam al-Erian, whom the press identified as a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who served as vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, died of a heart attack in Tora Prison on August 13.

On February 6, security authorities arrested Ahmed Sebaie, who managed a YouTube channel with 404,000 followers that focused on religion. Sebaie produced several videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and discussed Islam. After 29 days in detention, authorities released Sebaie without charges. On November 27, authorities arrested Sebaie again after he posted a video discussing the Bible and Christian doctrine to social media and charged him with reading false news and misuse of social media.

On May 5, authorities in Alexandria arrested 10 persons for holding Ramadan night prayers in contravention of the Ministry of Awqaf’s closure of mosques due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All were subsequently released without charges.

On February 2, the director of the Alexandria Ministry of Awqaf ordered a deduction of three months’ salary from preacher Mohammed Kamal Mohammed for failing to adhere to the ministry’s official topic for Friday sermons. In August, the Ministry of Awqaf revoked the preaching license of an al-Azhar preacher after accusing him of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for violence.

According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison that he be allowed to attend Coptic Christmas services on January 1. Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

On January 6, EIPR issued a statement criticizing the pace of legalization of churches and subsidiary buildings that had filed applications since 2016 and called for a single, uniform decree granting final legal status to all churches and subsidiary buildings.

According to official statistics, the government approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year. Since September 2017, it approved 1,800 of the 5,415 pending applications for licensure of churches and related buildings.

According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands during the year to build 10 churches in eight cities (Sadat, New 6th of October, New Beni Suef, Badr, Nasser, and New Sohag). At the May 21 inauguration of Project Good Hope 3 in Alexandria, a complex that will provide housing for 50,000 individuals and feature a centrally located new cathedral and mosque in close proximity, President al-Sisi stated, “The idea is that when we built the schools, the church, and the mosque, our young children will see that we are one country, one people.”

In September, the government announced that it would open and renovate more than 300 mosques in several governorates across the country in September and October. According to press reports, the step came in response to accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups that authorities had been demolishing mosques in a crackdown on illegal buildings.

A cabinet report stated that the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities allocated 41 million pounds ($2.61 million) for the Journey of the Holy Family project, a 2,100 mile trail that will extend from Sinai to Assiut, and will include stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells in 11 governorates. Those governorates have provided 448 million pounds ($28.55 million) for related development projects, according to the report.

According to a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) in the country, and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from the security and intelligence services.

The press reported that a government committee charged with the seizure of Muslim Brotherhood assets filed a lawsuit in September to confiscate the funds of 89 Muslim Brotherhood members, including the heirs of former President Mohammed Morsi. The court scheduled a hearing for January 2021.

In January, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the government authority that oversees the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), announced that it had excluded a number of publishers of Islamic titles from participating in the fair, held in January and February, and barred the sale of several authors for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Sayyed Qutb, Hassan al Banna, and Youssef Qaradawi. A CIBF representative said publishers were required to submit lists of titles that they intended to display for approval, and security officials reportedly rejected some of the applications submitted by Islamic publishing houses. In a January 25 statement, the chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization said that it took the actions to “prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from carrying out its activities.” On February 25, the Anti-Defamation League published a letter it had sent to President al-Sisi that condemned the presence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other anti-Semitic literature at the book fair. The General Egyptian Book Authority did not bar the publishers, one of which was affiliated with the government, from participating in the fair or order the books removed, citing the government’s commitment to freedom of speech. The Simon Wiesenthal Center published a letter which stated that the CIBF continued to allow the publisher Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi to display anti-Semitic publications.

On September 26, the Supreme Administrative Court denied an appeal against a 2014 decision by the Alexandria Judicial Court upholding a prohibition of the annual celebration of the birth of Rabbi Yaqoub bin Masoud, also known as Abu Hasira, at his tomb in the Beheira Governorate; ordered the removal of the shrine from the government’s list of Islamic, Jewish, and Coptic antiquities; and rejected a request to move the rabbi’s remains to Israel. The court justified its decision to prohibit the annual celebration, citing “moral offenses and disturbances to public order,” and ruled that the shrine lacked archaeological significance. The government first listed the tomb and the Jewish cemeteries surrounding it as antiquities in 2001. The court ordered the government to inform UNESCO of its decision.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing such sessions as substitutes for criminal proceedings which would address attacks on Christians and their churches. Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions. Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized the practice as an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship that regularly pressures Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On March 20 and 21, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Awqaf announced the closure of all churches and mosques to curb the spread of COVID-19. Churches and mosques remained closed through August. Religious institutions made concerted efforts to persuade the population to address the spread of COVID-19. On March 29, the Ministry of Awqaf, explaining its decision to close mosques, said that a fundamental goal of Islamic law was to preserve life. On March 15, al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the highest Islamic advisory body, declared it religiously permissible to suspend communal prayers in mosques to curb the spread of the pandemic. On March 17, Grand Mufti Shawky Allam said Egyptians should follow government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene, and on April 1, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa encouraging the distribution of alms to workers affected by COVID-19.

On July 4, the Ministry of Awqaf ordered barriers placed around the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, located inside al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, an action the ministry said was intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 after some worshippers kissed the shrine. In previous years, the government closed the room containing the tomb during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura.

On January 26, the High Administrative Court upheld a final verdict banning faculty and teaching staff of Cairo University from wearing the niqab (face veil) during classes, putting an end to a case first filed by 80 faculty members in 2015. The ban only applied to lecture halls during classes and did not apply to students. The ban came into force on February 8, with instructions that professors who did not comply were to be prohibited from teaching. On January 30, Ain Shams University issued a similar ban on the niqab for university staff.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers but continued to refuse requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.

According to local media, on May 30, the Supreme Administrative Court dissolved the Islamist Building and Development Party based on an allegation of the Political Parties Affairs Committee, which oversees political parties, that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group in violation of the law. While authorities did not ban other Islamist parties, including the Strong Egypt Party, they added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists on November 19.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. The governors of the Damietta and Ismailia governorates are Christian, as is a deputy governor of Alexandria Governorate. The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor. The electoral laws governing the 2020 House of Representatives elections reserved 24 seats for Christian candidates in the closed-list portion of the electoral system. Three Christians won elections as independent candidates to the House of Representatives in November. In addition, 17 Christian senators and two Christian representatives were elected, and President al-Sisi appointed seven Christian senators. President al-Sisi has approximately five senior Christian advisors.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, third grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum. On September 8, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki said in a press conference that President al-Sisi directed third grade classes to begin universal instruction from the book Values and Respect for Others, a text to teach ethics drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.

On February 18, the cabinet announced that the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in cooperation with the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents and the Ministries of Education and Technical Education, Awqaf, Culture, and Youth and Sports and the National Council of Women, signed eight protocols of cooperation with a number of Muslim and Christian NGOs to launch a program to promote equality in Minya Governorate, a region with a significant Christian population and a history of sectarian tensions. The cabinet announced a budget of 12 million pounds ($765,000) for the program that would target 44 villages.

Grand Imam El-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.” In a January 18 meeting with a delegation of French Catholic bishops, El-Tayyeb said the document’s principles offered a “safe way out of the problems of the East and West.”

In January, the al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced that in addition to highlighting unity between Muslims and Christians and the concept of citizenship without distinction to religious belief, new textbooks in the 11,000 schools under its purview would include material based upon the principles of the Document on Human Fraternity. In 2019, the committee announced the introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam. Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In a June 28 meeting with his cabinet, President al-Sisi urged “giving the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of all religions, including freedom of belief, tolerance and acceptance of differences.” On October 21, after images of the Prophet Mohammed that Muslims widely considered blasphemous were published and displayed in France, the President gave an address to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday during which he said freedom of expression should have limits if it offended more than 1.5 billion people. Al-Sisi said, “We also have rights. We have the right for our feelings not to be hurt and for our values not to be hurt,” adding that he firmly rejected any form of violence in the name of defending religion, religious symbols, or icons.

While the constitution declares al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion pounds ($1.02 billion).

Dar al-Iftaa and al-Azhar issued several fatwas and statements permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays, to assist non-Muslims in need, and to “stop using [religious] beliefs as means to harm or diminish others.” On April 18, Grand Imam El-Tayyeb congratulated Christians on Easter Sunday, stressing the bond of “brotherhood and love” between the country’s Muslims and Christians and highlighting that Christians were “good people (who) set the most wonderful example of solidarity and cohesion in critical moments, especially during this pandemic.”

On May 14, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa stating that it is permissible for Muslims to give zakat (religiously mandated charitable donations) to non-Muslims in need of treatment for COVID-19 or other diseases or to meet any other material needs.

On June 16, Dar al-Iftaa issued a series of statements on social media following the death due to suicide of Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian lesbian activist, writer, and reported atheist. Dar al-Iftaa wrote that “all heavenly religions” prohibit homosexuality and that atheism was an “intellectual problem” and a “psychological disease” requiring treatment. However, the statement continued, Muslims claiming “with full certainty” that a person “will never enter paradise” were “absolutely wrong, because such judgement of who goes to heaven and who does not is up to Allah.”

Following a government investment of 60 million pounds ($3.82 million), on January 10, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) reopened the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue in Alexandria. Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani noted in his remarks at the opening ceremony that “the opening of the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria after its restoration is a message to the world that the Egyptian government cares about the Egyptian heritage of all religions.” On February 14, the government sent a representative to a rededication ceremony of the synagogue honoring 174 members of the diaspora Jewish community from approximately a dozen countries.

On July 20, the government demolished several Islamic cemeteries it said dated from the early 20th century as part of a roadworks project, but denied reports that it had demolished parts of Cairo’s oldest Islamic cemetery, the Mamluk Desert Cemetery. Activists asserted that the tombs were part of the country’s Islamic heritage and that the cost of moving the graves was prohibitive for the families of the deceased.

On January 27 and 28, under the auspices of President al-Sisi, al-Azhar held the International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Thought attended by Muslim scholars from 47 countries. Al-Azhar announced the opening of a new center for the renewal of Islamic thought during the conference. In remarks made on behalf of President al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly urged the acceleration of reforming religious discourse, stressed the importance of countering “bogus” messaging and “pretentious” religious scholars who “hijack the minds of youth,” and called for practical solutions to the problems that divide Muslims. Al-Azhar Grand Imam El-Tayyeb criticized extremist religious thought and what he labeled as distorted and mocking images of Islam in the West. In an accompanying panel discussion, El-Tayyeb and Cairo University president Mohammed al-Khost presented contrasting views of the nature of possible reforms. Khost called for revisiting and revising sharia and the hadith for a modern world, while El-Tayyeb said that Muslims should build on, not abandon, Islamic tradition and attributed extremism in the Islamic world to politics, not to religious heritage.

A columnist in the government-owned newspaper Al-Youm7 wrote that the conference showed that the leaders of al-Azhar were “not concerned with the issue of renewing thought and enlightenment, but rather … in preserving the heritage that enables them to keep their great privileges in power and [to] collect the spoils and remain in the spotlight, using religion as a vehicle.” Former Minister of Culture and public intellectual Gaber Asfour told international press that “The current leadership of al-Azhar does not believe in renewal and is comfortable with the way things are.”

In July, press reported that al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars released a letter it had sent to the parliamentary speaker in February that rejected, on constitutional grounds, a proposed law drafted by the government that would have changed the status of the Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti, making them independent of al-Azhar. Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar, under the direct control of the government. The draft legislation, introduced in parliament in August, would have granted the President the right to appoint the Mufti. The State Council ruled the draft law was unconstitutional and returned it to parliament where the Religious Affairs Committee withdrew it from further consideration. After the decision to withdraw the bill, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb said that the decision to withdraw the bill demonstrated that the country continued to respect its constitution and appreciate its national institutions, including al-Azhar.

On June 22, the Ministry of Awqaf announced the formation of a committee “to counter extremist ideology.” The ministry said the committee was tasked with developing plans to confront extremist thought among ministry preachers and employees.

In 2019, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country, and that in the future, only mosques that complied with approved designs would be granted construction permits. Implementation of the new directive was pending at year’s end.

In 2019, the state-run University of Alexandria and the state-run University of Damanhour established centers of Coptic studies in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes include courses on the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art. The center at the University of Alexandria first began accepting applications in 2019. On March 4, the state-run Zagazig University and the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo signed an agreement for institutional cooperation in the fields of art, education, music, and the sciences. The agreement allows for an exchange of library services and publications and jointly held academic conferences.

On July 13, the Cairo Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 lower court ruling granting a Christian woman equal distribution of inheritance with her male siblings and declaring that the case was subject to Christian customary laws of inheritance rather than Islamic law.

On October 15, representatives from the Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic churches submitted a draft unified personal status law to the cabinet, covering such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In December, senior Coptic Orthodox Church representatives and the press announced that the cabinet had concluded its review of the draft law, which, according to press reports, incorporates and regulates personal status matters that the churches hold in common, while retaining articles specific to the doctrinal teachings of the three denominations.

On February 20, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam met with the World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, in the council’s Ecumenical Center in Geneva to discuss promotion of interreligious dialogue and combating extremism.

In January, Mohammed Fayek, president of the National Council for Human Rights, called on parliament to approve two draft laws on equal opportunity and preventing discrimination and to establish the constitutionally mandated independent commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination.

On July 21, Prime Minister Madbouly visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, built in the sixth century. On the occasion of the visit, the government announced that it would allocate 40 million pounds ($2.55 million) to restore and develop the monastery and its neighboring city.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Terrorist groups, including Islamic State-Sinai Peninsula (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) among others, conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets in the North Sinai Governorate.

In April, security forces said that a shootout with militants in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Cairo disrupted a plot against Coptic Orthodox Easter.

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides.

Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya Governorate on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man had social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. There was minimal damage and no casualties, and police made multiple arrests of Muslims and Christians.

On January 12 in Cairo, a man attacked a Christian woman with a knife, injuring her neck. According to media reports, the man said he attacked the woman because “she was not covering her hair.” Authorities arrested the attacker and, according to press reports, the prosecutor referred him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor at the High Institute for Social Service, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed and was “insulting” to the Quran. A Ministry of Higher Education official told the press that it had suspended the professor and referred the matter for investigation to a committee of professors at the University of Alexandria. The ministry referred Mahdaly’s case to the Public Prosecutor. Mahdaly, who had been experiencing health issues, passed away on December 24.

On May 16, authorities arrested a man after he reportedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the Virgin Mary and the Martyr St. George Church in Alexandria. There were no casualties or property damage. Prosecutors subsequently requested that the man undergo a psychiatric evaluation and said he had previously been under psychiatric care.

While there have been reports of abducted Coptic girls and women, government officials, leaders in the Christian community, and NGOs stated that they were skeptical of the classification of the cases as abductions. In a report released September 10, “Jihad of the Womb:” Trafficking of Coptic Women & Girls in Egypt, the NGO Coptic Solidarity reported on what it described as “the widespread practice of abduction and trafficking of Coptic women and girls…and how they are a particularly vulnerable group.” In March, MRGI reported that there were at least 13 reported cases of abducted Coptic women since October 2019.

Eshhad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction of intercommunal violence in recent years.

The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), the country’s media oversight agency, opened an investigation of television personality Radwa al-Sherbini after she said that women who wear the hijab are “100,000 times better than me and non-hijab [wearing] women…” and that “the devil inside women [who do not wear hijabs] is more powerful than their faith and strength.” The SCMR said it had received complaints from the public about the comments, and others criticized Sherbini on social media. One prominent women’s rights advocate said Sherbini’s statements instigated violence against nonveiled women. Sherbini later apologized for her comments.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, according to human rights groups and religious communities.

EIPR continued to call on the authorities to provide persons of unrecognized religious groups the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials, and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. On February 24, Dar al-Iftaa criticized commenters on social media who wrote that Christian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub would not enter heaven due to his faith. In its statement, Dar al-Iftaa said Yacoub “never looked at the religion of those he treated and saved from death but regarded them with compassion, mercy, and humanity.” The Ministry of Awqaf on February 24 suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post he made on social media that was believed to have targeted Yacoub. Commenting on the controversy, the al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwa urged Egyptians to recognize that “the belief of every human being…is a personal thing between him and his creator, and only Allah will inquire into it.”

In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates, and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers. Talaat said that engaging in dialogue with atheists could lead to the “inevitable outcome” of suicide.

In a January 24 interview with Russia Today TV, historian Mohammad al-Shafi said Jews benefitted the most from World War II by using the Holocaust to “extort the international community” and that other countries harmed by the war “did not receive booty, nor did they profit like the Jews did.” On April 25, the Israeli Foreign Ministry criticized the Ramadan science fiction television series The End as “unfortunate and unacceptable” for portraying a dystopian future in which “all of the Jews of Israel have returned to their countries of origin.”

A poll of Arab populations conducted between January and March by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, indicated that 69 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 – one of the highest results in the region – agreed that religion is “particularly important” to their personal identity.

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C., and released in November, 87 percent of respondents in the country either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” compared with 65 percent or respondents region-wide.

Saudi Arabia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 34.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they are believed to constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, reportedly number several hundred, most of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering in total approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam. The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed) and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.” The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

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

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person CSS that reports to the King. By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna. The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority. The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia. The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.” In the absence of a common law system and comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

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

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC. During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

Blasphemy against Islam is legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In April, the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and to replace it with prison sentences or fines. As a result of this decision, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes. However, judicial officials noted that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law): drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In April, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

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

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

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

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

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The CPVPV’s powers have been significantly curbed in recent years and its activities are now limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; these actions are explicitly reserved to the purview of law enforcement officials. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anticybercrime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

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

Government Practices

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities. While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

In February, online activists reported that the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat. The court convicted al-Khayat on charges including participating in demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, according to the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

On June 8, ESOHR reported that on January 24, 2019, the Public Prosecutor’s Office sought the hudood penalty for hirabah (unlawful warfare or insurgency) against Shia Jalal Hassan Labbad on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor. ESOHR also stated that authorities tortured Labbad during his imprisonment.

In July, SRW stated that security forces raided the predominately Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one individual being shot and injured.

As many as 53 individuals, most believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling. International human rights NGOs stated that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On October 29, ESOHR reported the SCC held a new hearing in the trial of eight Shia detainees, including five minors (Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al Bati, Mohammed Hussein al Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj). Human Rights Watch reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudood, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. They faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.” ESOHR reported that a total of 13 Shia youth who were arrested for crimes committed as minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher.

On August 26, the HRC said in a statement that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered a review of the death sentences of al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in April abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors. The HRC stated that under the decree, the three will be resentenced based on the Juvenile Law, which provides for a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Washington Post reported that authorities refused to return the bodies of at least 33 Shia Muslims executed in April 2019, ignoring repeated pleas from the families. ESOHR stated this refusal was “part of a cycle of persecution” against Shia and reported that from 2016 through the end of 2019, the bodies of at least 84 Shia men executed or killed in Saudi security raids were not returned for burial.

Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

On August 25, ESOHR reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office no longer sought the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests, but that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was still pursuing the death penalty for her codefendants, including her husband Moussa al-Hashim. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals.

On September 4, the Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that in August, security forces arrested Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. It added that authorities also arrested the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, Dr. Saud al-Fanisan, in March. There was no further information on the charges; observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk, and when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views that are counter to government policy.

In February, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC in Riyadh upheld an eight-year prison sentence and travel ban against Murtaja Qureiris, a 20-year-old Shia whom authorities had arrested as a juvenile after he participated in protests when he was between the ages of 10 and 13. The SCC issued its verdict following a 2019 decision that had reversed the death sentence initially imposed on Qureiris. On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

Raif Badawi remained in prison based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols. On April 30, Badawi’s wife said authorities referred Badawi’s case to court after he staged a hunger strike to protest poor treatment and because he did not feel safe in prison after he was attacked by a fellow inmate. Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes. The impact on Badawi’s case of the April Supreme Court directive ending flogging and replacing it with prison sentences or fines remained unclear at year’s end.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end. It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In September, local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery. A court in Jeddah sentenced an African businessman to six years in prison and deportation after serving his sentence on charges of fraud, impersonating a diplomat, and sorcery.

On March 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported the arrest of Islamic scholar Abdullah al-Saad after he posted a video online denouncing the government decision to suspend all prayers at mosques to limit the spread of COVID-19. Prisoners of Conscience reported in April that authorities released al-Saad 10 days after his arrest. On March 27, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of four individuals for claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from God.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement that it ordered the arrest of another three individuals who “exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.”

On July 12, the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) issued a statement announcing the suspension of the children’s television show Green Wish after the host asked members of the audience to pin their wishes on a wishing tree and hope they would come true, which many viewers said was “a call for polytheism.” In the statement, the SBC affirmed the adherence of its programs to “tolerant” Islam.

On March 21, local media reported that Mecca police arrested a Saudi man and two female Yemeni residents in Jeddah for “mocking Islamic religious rituals” after the man appeared in a photo kneeling down before one of the women as a sign of worship in front of a mosque in Jeddah.

On April 30, local media reported that Riyadh police arrested a man for posting a Snapchat video “mocking prayers.”

During the year, the SCC held at least three hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by Human Rights Watch as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. Following a December 25 hearing, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to Human Rights Watch, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC, which specializes in terrorism and national security cases, continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam. The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. Most of the 37 charges against al-Odah concerned alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government as well as his public support for imprisoned dissidents. Al-Odah’s son stated in a December press article that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during three years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence. Beginning in mid-May through mid-September, activists said authorities denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls.

Prisoners of Conscience stated a number of clerics were detained, charged, or sentenced for offenses related to their religious opinions, although the charges were not specified. In September, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics and religious leaders arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views, including Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, Abdullah al-Maliki, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Dr. Yousef Ahmad al-Qasem, Sheikh Ghorom al-Bishi, Rabea Hafez, Fahad al-Sunaidi, and Dr. Ibrahim al-Faris. According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between three and 10 years in prison.

On October 9, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced cleric Naif al-Sahafi to 10 years in prison. Authorities arrested al-Sahafi in a wide-ranging crackdown on Shia clerics in 2017.

On October 14, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced cleric Ali Badahdah, detained since 2017, to six years in prison. On October 15, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced Habib bin Mualla, in detention since 2017, to three-and-a-half years in prison. Mualla previously served as an advisor at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

On October 12, Prisoners of Conscience said authorities suspended clerics Khaled al-Mushaiqeh and Abdulrahman al-Aqel from preaching and giving religious lectures.

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

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

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons. It restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval. However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas (prayer halls) were found in areas inhabited by Shia residents. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas. In 2018, the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. On May 26, Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif al-Sheikh announced Sunni imams were required to select their sermons from among those published on the MOIA portal. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

According to a report in the newspaper al-Watan, the government fired 100 imams and preachers for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by MOIA.

On February 27, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities suspended the Umrah for pilgrims traveling from outside the country and did the same on March 4 for citizens and residents of the country. The MOIA announced that on March 17, it was suspending daily prayers and weekly Friday prayers at all mosques in the country, except for the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The government also closed Shia husseiniyas, allowing them to reopen in late-July to be used for August Ashura commemorations. On March 20, the Grand Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques announced that it would stop worshippers from entering the two Holy Mosques. Prayers resumed at mosques outside Mecca on May 31 and resumed in Mecca on June 21.

On June 22, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to approximately 1,000 pilgrims, all living in-country, approximately 700 of whom would be noncitizens representing 160 nationalities. On September 23, the government announced that it would start allowing pilgrims to perform Umrah in gradual stages beginning on October 1. On October 18, the government allowed citizens and noncitizen residents to pray in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population, a practice begun in 2016. According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities; such events were also scaled down during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance. In one instance, a photograph of a Sunni police officer aiding an elderly Shia follower was shared across social media platforms, drawing praise for the message of tolerance it depicted. In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.

On October 6, according to SRW, authorities arrested two orators, Muhammad Bou Jabara and Ali Khulayya, for their participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after the Day of Ashura).

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times, per Sunni practice) or in some instances not to close at all. Residents in Sunni and Shia communities noted that although businesses historically were required to close after the call to prayer, there appeared to be a gradual but growing tendency for businesses to remain open during prayer times.

According to the NGO SRW, on April 17, authorities bulldozed Shia graves in Awamiya, Qatif, damaging historical structures and monuments. SRW also reported that on May 14, military forces raided the neighborhood of Umm al-Jazm in Qatif, to prevent use of the Shia variant of the call to prayer. According to SRW, raids by government forces occurred in Shia-dominant neighborhoods in October, July, February, and January.

The al-Awamiyah mosque of former Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was demolished by authorities in December.

While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In January, Muslim World League (MWL) secretary-general Mohammed al-Issa announced that Saudi Arabia will stop funding mosques in foreign countries. According to the Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche, the country planned to establish local administrative councils for each of these mosques in cooperation with the local authorities, in order to transfer these mosques to “secure hands.”

Observers stated that judges sometimes discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under their interpretation of sharia and the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases, such as financial disputes or criminal charges.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. On October 13, local media reported that the CPVPV in Khobar Governorate intensified its field presence with foot and vehicle patrols in markets, malls, and streets to implement the programs and events of the “Prayer is Light” campaign, which aimed to highlight the importance of prayer. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty. There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. According to a February report by the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), Saudi curricula for the years 2016-2019 taught students that non-Muslims – including Christians and Jews – were infidels and described them as enemies of Islam. Christians were referred to derogatorily as “polytheists.” In addition, textbooks also taught students to consider Jews “monkeys” and “assassins” and “eternally treacherous, murdering prophets, committing irreparable evil, and determined to harm Muslim holy places.” In a separate study published in December on a review of textbooks used in the 2020-2021 school year, IMPACT-se found a notable reduction in anti-Semitic content. In a statement about the report, the NGO said, “While the latest…report did not find that new tolerant material had been injected into the curriculum, it did find that a substantial amount of offensive material had been removed.” IMPACT-se’s CEO said, “The Saudi authorities have begun a process of rooting out anti-Jewish hate.”

On February 19, Minister of Education Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sheikh dismissed Dr. Jamil bin Abdulmohsin al-Khalaf, dean of the Sharia Faculty at Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, after he reportedly invited “people with deviant ideology” to a faculty event. In a statement, the university said the decision was intended to “purify” its campus of intellectual impurities that could harm national security or contradict moderate Islam.

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

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

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the cybercrimes law. The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017, authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain applications, including FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. However, some users continued to report that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion when seeking government employment. Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including in the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education. According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.

Shia stated the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious training centers for employment credit and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

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

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons. The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to officially endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There were no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers, such as Jeddah and Riyadh. Shia in those areas had to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

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

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

On April 16, Minister of Islamic Affairs al-Sheikh said the MOIA would refer to the Public Prosecutor’s Office a number of women preachers who delivered religious sermons and lectures without prior permits from the MOIA, which constituted a violation of the law.

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

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances such as prayers.

The government did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain in-person contact with clergy not resident in the country, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.

On January 23, MWL secretary general al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the MWL and the American Jewish Committee. In a June 9 online ceremony, the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation presented al-Issa with their inaugural Combat Anti-Semitism Award. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli Rabbi David Rosen, who became the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.

In February, a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the country and met with senior government officials and MWL secretary-general al-Issa to discuss countering violent extremism in the Middle East. This was believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993, when the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to endorse the Oslo agreements.

On June 14, MWL Secretary-General al-Issa said that Jews and Muslims working together could defeat “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or any other form of prejudice.” In a speech delivered at the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum 2020 and posted to YouTube, he said the MWL was proud to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters to build understanding, respect, love, and interreligious harmony.”

In August 22 remarks to an online media forum, al-Issa stressed the need for promoting coexistence among different faiths and cultures, and he called for confronting perpetrators of the ideology of hatred and racism to achieve lasting global peace.

On September 4, shortly after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” toward Jews, and he emphasized that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors and the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well.”

On October 13, the country hosted a virtual global interfaith forum as part of its presidency of the Group of 20, with participation from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Christian leaders, among other religious representatives. The online forum was accessible to Saudis and international participants.

Instances of anti-Semitic statements by public officials continued. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi said during a media interview that secularism was not tantamount to atheism and that it did not force people to renounce their religion or deny them the right to religious exercise.

In April and May, during the prime viewing month of Ramadan, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based MBC network aired Umm Haroun, a historical drama series centered on the life of a Jewish midwife in an unnamed, multireligious Persian Gulf community. The New York Times stated, “Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often-overlooked aspect of the region’s past – Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf – while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.” Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world.

Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. She called for embracing change, religious enlightenment, and the application of reason in religious interpretation to bring the younger generation closer to Islam.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media remained prevalent when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were common in public discourse. In September, cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet under the hashtag “rejectionists’ creed.”

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

Syria

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced; there were approximately 5.6 million refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries as well as 6.6 million IDPs. Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

The U.S. government estimates 10 percent of the population is Christian. However, there are reports that indicate that number was considerably lower – approximately 2.5 percent. Of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in the country prior to the war, it is estimated that only approximately one-third of them – or approximately 450,000 – remain. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, but in June, the Jewish Chronicle reported that there were no known Jews still living in Syria. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

The constitution states, “The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it violated their rights. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case being decided.

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

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

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

The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.

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

Government Practices

The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit indiscriminate human rights abuses and violations against civilians, as well as participate in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. According to press and NGO reporting, the government continued its widespread use of unlawful killings, attacks on civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims.

Some opposition groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Muslim in statements and publications. According to observers, these opposition groups drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. Some NGO sources stated that the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from attacks by violent Sunni extremist groups. Other NGO sources said that some minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists. A May report by the Carnegie Middle East Center stated, “The destruction during the conflict was not solely collateral damage. Its scale, nature, and consequences implied that it was used as a weapon of war to eradicate the populations of opposition areas…. Additionally, many believe the damage took place along sectarian lines, with a majority of destroyed areas being Sunni.”

The government’s counterinsurgency campaign continued to be aimed at those within the country who criticized or opposed the government, the majority of whom are Sunni and whom the government described as violent extremists. There were continued reports that in its efforts to retake opposition-held areas, the government targeted civilian centers in towns and neighborhoods, which, due to prevailing demographics, were inhabited by a majority Sunni population. From December 2019 to early March 2020, the government, with the support of its Russian allies, launched a large-scale military attack in Idlib Governate that killed hundreds of civilians as well as several dozen Turkish military personnel deployed in Idlib. The United Nations estimated that nearly one million persons were forced to leave their homes and that entire areas were left depopulated. The assault, which involved the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists, a status meant to exempt them from military targeting. Turkey reinforced its military position in Idlib to halt the offensive, and on March 5, Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire that included joint patrols and that largely held for the remainder of the year.

The attacks in Idlib resulted in the destruction of several mosques. For example, on March 2, government forces shelled the Othman Bin Affan Mosque in Balyoun village, in the Jabal al-Zaweya area of Idlib Governorate, partially destroying the building, according to the SNHR.

The SNHR reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 individuals who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing.

Media and NGOs continued to report that government forces continued to detain, torture, and kill citizens in connection with their political dissent and expression of opinions despite the right to freedom of opinion and expression being protected by the constitution and international law. The SNHR estimated the government and progovernment militias arbitrarily detained approximately 900 citizens during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center reported government forces operated with impunity, while systematic, officially sanctioned torture continued. According to the SNHR, since 2011, more than 14,300 persons have died from torture in government custody. During the year, government forces were reportedly responsible for 157 deaths by torture. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, most were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition or likely to support the opposition.

According to a March Freedom House Report, individuals living in government-held territory increasingly exposed corruption among local officials and among the government’s business allies and security services. The Freedom House report stated that the government harassed and detained those who did so, and that the government and loyalist militias punished Sunni Arab civilians more harshly than Alawites.

A July 24 Middle East Institute report stated that during the parliamentary elections in summer 2020, the Baath Party announced the list of candidates for different governorates and removed the name of at least one Christian candidate, justifying the change by stating that a Christian representative was not needed because there were no Christians left in Idlib.

The government continued to use Law No. 10 of 2018 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to claim their property and return to their homes. According NGO reports, since the law’s enactment, the government has replaced residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies, including by allowing only religious institutions submissive to government control to operate in those areas. These reports stated that the government’s policies disproportionately impacted Sunni populations. One U.S.-based NGO described the law as part of the government’s attempt to legalize demographic change and stated, “It is unlikely that displaced citizens will ever see their property again.” In response to a conference focused on refugees hosted by the government in November, the SHNR released a statement that said that Law No. 10 and other legislation “constitute a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs, amounting to enforced evictions and to an effort to manipulate demographics and social structures” of the country.

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

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services, although the senior officer corps of the military continued to accept into its ranks individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.

In a March study, Muhsin al-Mustafa, a researcher for the Carnegie Middle East Center, stated that “every single one of the top 40 posts in the Syrian armed forces was held by a member of President Assad’s Alawite sect.” He added, “The entire Syrian military is not built on one particular sect. But in recent years the institution has been characterized by an unprecedented degree of sectarianism.” The SNHR in a June report stated, “The vast majority of the leaders of the security services and the army (which are the two most prominent institutions ruling in Syria) are from the Alawite sect, a form of blatant discrimination on the basis of sectarianism….” Yazid Sayigh, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in March, “The regime has increased dependence on Alawi recruits and on militarizing the Alawi community….” However, Abdulrahman al-Masri, writing for the Atlantic Council in September, stated that the support of the Alawite community for the government came at great cost – it suffered disproportionate battlefield losses and continued to be hurt by deteriorating living conditions – while it endured increased isolation from the rest of society.

On June 15, the New York Times reported that some in the military said the collapse of the Syrian currency had made their salaries virtually worthless, with army generals earning the equivalent of less than $50 per month and soldiers earning less than a third of that. It noted, “Anger about sinking livelihoods has flared even among members of…[the] Alawite minority, whose young men fought in large numbers…only to find that they will share in the country’s poverty instead of reaping the benefits of victory.”

There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population. The Atlantic Council, in an August 12 report, stated, “The Syrian regime deals with all groups and sects in the same way.… In reality, the regime is neither a protector of minority rights nor an advocate of women’s rights – let alone a promoter of peace and reconciliation. It operates merely to preserve itself, it undermines chances of Syrians uniting across religious and ethnic lines, and [it] gouges the government’s chances of effectiveness by manipulating positions, all while retaining the true decision-making power for itself.”

According to a June Carnegie Middle East Center report, the civil war “has altered the Sunni Muslim religious landscape of the capital, Damascus.” The report stated that Damascus was previously home to disparate and often times competing Sunni religious institutions. Many of these institutions and individual Sunni leaders have been forced into exile for being “insufficiently subservient” to the Assad regime and many have now united into a single opposition organization, the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC).

In a joint paper released in March, Manufacturing Division: the Assad Regime and Minorities in South-West Syria, the Middle East Institute and Etana Syria stated that tens of thousands of minority citizens in the country’s southwest have fled to Damascus or left the country. Compared with 2011, when the civil war began, there were 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia in the area. The report stated the government promoted itself as the champion of minorities and as a firewall against Islamic radicalism, intentionally stoking sectarian fears while simultaneously recruiting members of the Alawite and Shia communities to join the ranks of militias allied with the government. According to the report, “The weaponization of specific sects has eroded historically strong ties between Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Alawite communities in the southwest.” The paper also concluded that the government cultivated relationships with influential members of the Christian clergy, Druze leadership, and Circassian elite, granting these local powerbrokers disproportionate authority and influence in their communities, resulting in the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies and the appointment of progovernment minority figures to positions of power.

According to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, anti-Semitism was endemic and had taken root at every level of society. The paper stated that religious leaders “quote – out of historical and religious context – Quranic scriptures to drive this ideology of hate, while many Syrian intellectuals and the artists adopt the hateful rhetoric of this dictatorship without question.” Anti-Semitic literature remained available for purchase at low prices throughout the country. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.

In May, the SANA Cinema and Television Industry Committee called on broadcasters to denounce the screening of a documentary series produced by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center that called for normalization with Israel. The committee statement said, “Producers in Syria denounce the normalization with the Zionist entity through broadcasting such a series with a low message to deal with the enemy and distort facts.” A May 18 article in the official newspaper of the Syrian government, the daily Al-Thawra, stated that the COVID-19 virus had been developed by the United States and was deployed according to a plan by “the Zionist Freemasons, the Rothschilds, and the Rockefellers,” who control the United States “empire” and seek to prevent its collapse and to renew their “global control.”

Discussing Arab states’ normalization of relations with Israel, Mohammed Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, the Minister of Religious Endowments, said in an October 27 television interview, “Every single surah in the Quran that mentions Israelites talks about their disgrace [and] their violation of treaties[.]”

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s joint Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative reported in May that the condition of 62 percent of Jewish-built heritage sites in the country was poor, very bad, or beyond repair.

The national school curriculum did not include materials on religious tolerance or the Holocaust.

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

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

There continued to be reports that the Iranian government directly supported the Assad government primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that it recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters to the conflict. The Turkish press agency Anadolu stated that poverty and ideological motivations seemed to be the main reasons for foreign Shia to volunteer, and that while Iran promised jobs and an income, it also abused faith as a tool of sectarian-ideological exploitation. According to the report, in its recruitment efforts, Iran emphasized religious shrines and graves targeted and desecrated during the civil war and aroused hatred against Sunni groups fighting on the side of the opposition in Syria. The report also stated that Iranian recruiters promised that anyone who died in the war would be regarded as a martyr and be buried in Iran’s holy city of Qom. On March 1, Radio Farda reported that Iran buried 21 Afghan and Pakistani militia members in Qom. The Atlantic Council estimated in November that the Afghan brigade had an estimated 3,000 to 14,000 fighters spread between three battalions in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama Governates and that the Pakistani brigade had an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 fighters deployed in Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Hama Governate.

A November report by the Atlantic Council stated that Iran encouraged the Shia minority in Syria to form special militias inside Syria, adding that “some of the Shia militias in Syria were and continue to be recruited on a sectarian basis under the pretext of defending places considered holy by the Shia community. For example, campaigns are being conducted in the areas housing holy Shia shrines in Damascus in the Sayeda Zeinab district.” The report also stated, “Iran recruited from the Shia minority… mainly from northern Aleppo, northern Homs, and parts of Raqqa.” The report stated that Iranian-recruited Syrian militia had between 5,000 and 8,000 members.

According to the news website IranWire, pro-Iranian militias reinforced government forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in the southwest of the country in June. Since 2011, the government permitted Iran to open primary and secondary schools on the coast, including in Latakia, where there previously was no Shia community. In March, a new center in Deir ez-Zor affiliated with the Alawalaya Scouts was inaugurated, supported by the Iranian Cultural Center. According to a notice in front of the center, the latter sponsors “cultural activities, sports, the arts, volunteer opportunities, developmental work, and educational and Holy Quran activities.”

According to community representatives, human rights organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation gathering groups, TSOs in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other residents, including detentions and abductions of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained individuals across the border into Turkey, cutting off water to local populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. TSOs also reportedly abused members of other religious minorities.

In areas under Turkish control, TSO groups operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) restricted religious freedom of Yezidis through attacks against and the intimidation of civilians. The COI in March reported that Yezidi civilians in Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad were attacked and stated, “Videos published on the Internet, purportedly by SNA fighters, used language comparing their enemies to ‘infidels,’ ‘atheists,’ and ‘pigs’ when referring to civilians, detainees, and property, which further amplified fears and created an environment conducive to abuse.”

In December, the Voice of America reported that Yezidi community members in the northwest of the country said they were in a state of fear after Turkey-backed rebels in control of the area launched a weeklong blockade and arrest campaign against the Yezidi community in Afrin. The campaign started after an explosion near the two predominantly Yezidi villages of Basoufan and Ba’ay in southern Afrin targeted a TSO leader.

Religious and ethnic minorities, especially displaced Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, in areas under Turkish control, such as in the city of Afrin, reported persecution and marginalization. In August, regional news media reported that TSOs kidnapped 14 Syrian Kurds living in Afrin who had converted to Christianity. According to press reporting, TSOs attacked the predominantly Christian city of al-Suqyiabiyeh on November 6. In August, the press reported that a TSO in Afrin detained Radwan Mohammed, a Christian school headmaster, after he refused to convert his school into an Islamic educational center. The TSO alleged that Mohammed had committed apostasy.

The COI report in March stated, “Civilians in and around Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad reported numerous cases of looting and property appropriation by members of the SNA primarily affecting Kurdish residents and, on occasion, Yazidi owners who had fled in October.”

A March news report from Kurdistan 24, an Erbil-based Kurdish broadcast news station, reported anti-Yezidi abuses during the 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive by Turkey had compounded those experienced during the Turkish incursion into Afrin in 2018. The report stated that experts on the Yezidis warned that the small community in Syria could “go extinct as the result of years of victimization by the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and ongoing Turkish threats.” The COI reported in March, “Anticipating attacks on their community, Yezidi women, men and children, who populated some 13 villages across Ra’s al-Ayn District, also left.” Reports stated that only 15,000 of 50,000 Yezidis in northeast Syria remained and that it was feared more would flee. Yezidi Council spokesman Adnan Hassan told the Arab Weekly in an October report that since Turkish cross-border operations had begun in Afrin, 28 Yezidi villages had been evacuated, including one village that was transformed into a Turkish military base. Hassan also stated that Islamist factions in the region tried to force Yezidis to change their religion.

According to the COI, Yezidi women were detained by TSO groups and on at least one occasion were urged to convert to Islam during interrogation. In Afrin, Yezidi women who were reported to have been kidnapped by TSOs remained missing. The COI reported in September that it was “currently investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yezidi women were detained in both Ras al-Ayn and Afrin by [SNA] members between November 2019 and July 2020.”

The September COI report referenced a case in which the TSO’s Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council and a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, converted two TSO-seized, private, Kurdish-owned properties in Ras al-Ayn into religious centers. The owner of the properties said he objected to the properties’ conversion and was not compensated, but the conversions proceeded. The Ras al-Ayn Local Council deputy chair stated this sequence of events was correct.

A September COI report identified cases from April in which “several Yezidi shrines and graveyards were deliberately looted and partially destroyed across locations throughout the Afrin region, such as Qastel Jindo, Qibar, Jindayris, and Sharran, further challenging the precarious existence of the Yezidi community as a religious minority in SNA-controlled regions.” Human rights groups and Syrian media reported that militants of the TSO group Sultan Suleiman Shah looted the archaeological hill of Arnada, in the area of al-Sheikh Hadid west of Afrin, with heavy equipment. The looting heavily damaged the hill. In April, the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July, the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar Cemetery. These organizations also reported cases in which TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.

In the northeast of the country, civilians, many of them members of religious minorities, including Christians and Yezidis, faced threats from TSO groups to cut off water, via the deliberate shutdown of or interference with the Alouk Water Station, which since October 2019 was controlled by TSO groups. One press report stated that human rights groups reported TSOs had specifically threatened minority Christian and Yezidi communities recovering from ISIS abuses. In August, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch appealed to the UN Secretary General regarding what he termed was the use of water from the Alouk station as a “weapon,” stating that the cutting off of water amounted to “a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.”

The COI and numerous independent sources reported that, during the course of the conflict, nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations, the United States, and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and members of other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, including Kurds, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and detentions. These resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration.

The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, including persons suspected of collaborating with government security forces, and members of groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the region, according to a January report by the NGO Open Doors. The report said that many Christians, fearing the possibility of an ISIS resurgence, did not feel safe. Thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members were being held in detention in the northeast of the country by the SDF or living in the closed al-Hol camp.

Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals detained by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, whom ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children have since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.

According to media reports, different Islamic factions subjected Christians in Idlib Governate to the application of sharia as well as the introduction of jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims) to pressure them to leave their homes. Media reporting indicated that HTS increased such restrictions on Christians in Idlib city. According to these reports, the HTS office of “Christians’ properties” notified Christian tenants and landlords to check with the HTS administrative offices before renewing leases or setting new terms, including raising the rents of houses and shops, since HTS considered Christians’ properties to be spoils of war. According to the COI, the HTS committed a wide range of abuses based on sectarian identity in areas it controlled.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Throughout the year there were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, cultural rivalries, and provocative rhetoric.

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

The state news agency SANA reported that Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni mufti for Damascus Province, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the town of Qudssaya. The perpetrators of the attack remain unidentified. International observers considered al-Afiyuni to be close to President Assad.

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

United Arab Emirates

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, and also including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years and deportation for noncitizens.

The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims. The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.

The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) to two million dirhams ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported. The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments. The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions. In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the Community Development Authority (CDA). The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.

The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan. Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 2,000 dirhams ($540). The law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol or knowingly eating pork throughout the year. The government announced a series of legal reforms in November decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol but had not published the text of the reforms by year’s end. Despite legal prohibitions on eating during daylight hours during Ramadan, most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.

The federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam. The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student; for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas. Outside of special economic zones and designated freehold areas, the law restricts majority company ownership to citizens except in certain exempted sectors. This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.

The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression. It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred. Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia. Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.

In November, the country’s President announced decrees amending the federal laws on personal status, civil transactions, the penal code, and criminal procedures. Amendments to the penal code and criminal procedure law repealed “the article giving [a] reduced (lenient) sentence in what are called honor crimes.” “Honor” killings will henceforth be treated as normal murder cases. In other amendments, noncitizens may choose not to apply sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance, and other acts “that do not harm others,” leaving to prosecutors and judges to define those specific acts.

The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law; non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “the best interests of the child” standard since 2010. According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education. The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.

The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage, if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will. In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, sharia usually applies.

Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. In November, the government announced changes to the personal status laws allowing the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality. This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law. The government had not published the text of these reforms by year’s end. Non-Muslims are able to register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad. The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishment may include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) to one million dirhams ($272,000). Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million). The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.

Under the law, local authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons. The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid Musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material. The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques. The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities. Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600). Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams ($54,500) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments is entrusted with overseeing Muslim religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications. Non-Muslim religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities. The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams ($140) to 100,000 dirhams ($27,200).

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

Government Practices

According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered their deportation for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported for insulting Islam in WhatsApp messages.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. Customs authorities in Dubai and the northern emirates reported seizing shipments containing materials they said were intended for use in magic and sorcery. According to media reports, in late 2019, Abu Dhabi police arrested a European national for charges of witchcraft and fraud; the subsequent status of his case remained unknown. In February, local press reported Dubai Customs prevented 22 attempts in 2019 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery.

Following a 2018 court ruling upholding his earlier conviction, the government continued to imprison Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017. Although specifics of the charges against Mansoor remained unknown, authorities stated that, among other violations of the law, Mansoor promoted “a sectarian- and hate-filled agenda.”

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. Since 2011, the government also has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy again raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. They said that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity. Following the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, the government unblocked some websites containing information on Judaism.

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background, and knowledge of Islam along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. Leading up to Ramadan, the Awqaf launched training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

In January, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi announced on Instagram that well-known preacher and television personality Waseem Youssef was no longer an imam and preacher at the mosque. Although the reason for Youssef’s removal was not provided, according to the press it was tied to lawsuits that Youssef pursued against 19 individuals for “defamation” on social media, following his comments questioning the validity of one of the canonical sources of the hadith. The lawsuits culminated in the court finding four defendants guilty of defaming Youssef while dismissing the remaining cases.

Following these civil trials, in February, private citizens filed a civil law suit against Youssef in the Abu Dhabi criminal court, charging him under the cybercrime law with promoting ideas and programs that spread hatred and racism and harm national unity and social peace. Youssef maintained his innocence. In March, the court decreed in March that the case was outside its jurisdiction and referred it to federal prosecutors for further review. The government took no action in this regard.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, managed Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The government did not appoint imams for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers.

The Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) implemented a new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship. Under the system, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. The establishment of this system followed a 2019 DCD decision to grant licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the emirate’s first traditional Hindu temple. These changes did not apply to religious groups in the other emirates.

In August, Dubai’s Jewish community publicly announced that it was negotiating with the Dubai government for an official license.

The new Abu Dhabi guideline instituted in late 2019 and early 2020 requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. Some religious community members expressed concern that the new system discriminated against smaller and less-recognized denominations.

Since the September 2019 licensing of 18 houses of worship by the DCD, community sources reported that unregistered religious organizations faced challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion. COVID-19 related restrictions, however, disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early March, the government instituted a nationwide mandatory suspension of group prayers at all mosques, churches, and temples, followed by the ordered closure of all houses of worship in the UAE. From July through September, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments began the phased reopening of houses of worship, beginning with mosques and then non-Islamic houses of worship. Houses of worship located in labor camps and industrial zones, which included more than half of all churches located in Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain, were the last to receive permission to open.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were continued reports of delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. The CDA oversees civil institutions, nonprofits, and non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate. There were continued reports of restrictions as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

In May, the CDA ordered St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai to cease online live-streamed masses until it obtained a permit, following the government-ordered closure of religious facilities across the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Mary’s subsequently obtained a permit, and the CDA allowed live-streamed masses to resume. COVID-19 restrictions continue to restrict the activities of some churches in Dubai, including the Catholic and Anglican communities. While these churches were allowed to reopen at the same time as other religious facilities, local regulations prohibited practices such as receiving communion due to concerns these practices would contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Despite the closure of houses of worship as a result of COVID-19, the Abu Dhabi government encouraged non-Islamic houses of worship to live-stream services for major holidays, such as Easter.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation. Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In February, worshippers attended a prayer ceremony marking the start of the construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple.

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from the Catholic, Anglican, and Hindu communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship. Following a meeting in Abu Dhabi between UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and members of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushotta Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Hindu community, the BAPS said the meeting “spoke volumes” about the UAE leadership’s “vision and commitment for a more inclusive, more peaceful, and harmonious future.”

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them, such as books. In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

Except in the judiciary and military, religious minorities (including Shia Muslims) did not serve in senior federal positions.

In October, the Federal Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 100 lashes in an adultery case involving an unmarried Muslim man and woman who confessed to having illicit sex in one of the northern emirates. The court stated, “Article 1 of the Penal Code under the provisions of Islamic Sharia law stipulates giving 100 lashes and expatriation or distancing for a period of one year to an unmarried person.” Although the pair challenged the ruling, both the court of appeal and the Federal Supreme Court based in Abu Dhabi upheld the flogging sentence.

In October, the press reported that the government was considering a proposal to provide additional housing grants and loans to men who take second and third wives.

In November, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to the Emir of Sharjah reporting that the Sharjah International Book Fair, held November 4-14, included displays of anti-Semitic books, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other titles. The Wiesenthal Center sent similar letters to the country’s UNESCO representative and to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested a list of the anti-Semitic titles and vowed to work with the book fair authorities and other relevant ministries to address and prevent the presence of such books in the future.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels. In April, Dubai’s government granted the Church of Jesus Christ a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022 for construction of the Church’s first temple in the Middle East region.

There are two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2022. There are no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

There are no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in private Dubai villas and hotels. Construction in Abu Dhabi of the first official synagogue in the country is scheduled to begin in 2021 as part of the larger government-funded Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. In October, international press reported members of Dubai’s Jewish community built a sukkah (a small shelter used during celebration of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival) outside a hotel at Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper. In December, Dubai’s Jewish community held several public Hanukkah celebrations, which included one congregation lighting a large Menorah in front of the Burj Khalifa.

Construction of a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi remained stalled at 50 percent completion due financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

In January and February, the government hosted members of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, a nine-member multifaith committee that included representatives from the UAE, Egypt, Italy, the United States, Bulgaria, and Spain and was tasked with implementing the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together a declaration of reconciliation, cooperation, tolerance, and fraternity among believers and nonbelievers that was announced during the Pope’s 2019 visit to Abu Dhabi. During the meetings, the participants discussed their commitment to the goal of fostering coexistence, peace, and social fraternity.

In February, the government hosted the Voices of Human Fraternity Forum, which brought together 150 students, youth leaders, advocates, and educational representatives from around the world to promote the values reflected in the Document on Human Fraternity.

Following the announcement of normalization of relations with Israel, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism sent a letter to all hotels advising them to add kosher menus to their food services. The letter said that kitchens must be prepared for the requirements of Jewish dietary laws and that there would be ongoing kashrut supervision, similar to that of hotels in Israel. According to the letter, “All hotel establishments are advised to include kosher food options on room service menus and at all food and beverage outlets in their establishments.”

During a joint World Muslim Communities Council and Supreme Council of Imams and Islamic Affairs virtual seminar in August, entitled “The Role of Imams in Reinforcing Community Peace,” the chairman of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, Dr. Mohammed al Kaabi, said, “The right path to confronting extremism is to develop moderate religious awareness and support influential religious leaders.”

In September, the Minister of Culture and Youth said the government wanted to send “a message of hope to the community in Mosul, which has always been an incubator for religious and intellectual discourse.”

In November, the Education Affairs Office of the Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi announced that at least 1,500 teachers would receive moral education training to instill tolerance, community spirit, and compassion in students.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah. In October, he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, where he stated that the visit to the memorial “underscored the importance of human values such as coexistence, tolerance and accepting the other…as well as respect for all creeds and faiths.”

In November, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi opened a multifaith prayer room for use by hospital visitors.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January, local press reported that a man identified as a GCC national tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. The grandmother suffered second and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body. The Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance sentenced the man to five years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. The man challenged the ruling in the appellate court, which reduced the prison sentence to three years but maintained the compensation amount. The defendant then appealed to Abu Dhabi’s Court of Cassation, the emirate’s highest court, where the prosecution argued that the appeal be rejected and that the court order the defendant to pay the court costs. At year’s end, the status of the appeal remained unknown.

In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press it would investigate the incident. Later that month, an employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. In May, the press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police.

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members. In October, Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 2,570 Dubai residents converted to Islam in the first three quarters of 2020.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

According to press reports, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant, Kaf, opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, on September 17. On September 18, the Dubai newspaper Khaleej Times published a Rosh Hashanah supplement. On December 1, Dubai hosted the country’s first Jewish wedding.

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